Archive for November, 2012


I gave blood for the first time yesterday.

I’ve been meaning to do it for years, much like most people, I suspect. Everyone knows that giving blood is an obviously good and important thing. Aside from a very small pocket of religious extremists, how can you possibly not champion something like this?

But I still went years without ever getting round to it myself, and so do millions of people. I kept seeing reminders, though, and hearing people talk about it, and every time I did it nudged me a little closer to actually doing something about it myself.

This is your reminder for today. Take this as a nudge.

Admittedly a strong part of my impetus was the nurse I’m engaged to, who’s much better acquainted with the process than I am. She booked us in and took me there from the station after work – the centre where this team set up every few weeks is literally on my walk home after I get off the train every day. I’ve seen the NHS van parked outside before and gone straight past it because I’d had a long day and just wanted to go home.

I was really nervous, and the initial sight of the room didn’t do a lot to help. It was a pretty big open space, with half a dozen big plastic chairs spread out across the middle of the room, sort of like you get at the dentist’s. They each had a tray of equipment by the side, and something not quite like a normal arm-rest.

There were some other normal chairs in a waiting area, and several desks where you sit and get interviewed about your health and whatnot at various points in the process.

A few people were in the big chairs when we got there, leaning right back and with things stuck in their arms. The monitoring equipment all kept beeping intermittently, to let people know that… that the things had been in people’s arms for long enough, I guess.

I’m being glib, but it’s not just that I don’t really know much about the technical medical side of things – it’s more that I really don’t like thinking about it. I’m very icky around needles, and blood, so it’s lucky that I didn’t actually see any of those the whole time I was there.

That’s not quite true, but it’s barely an exaggeration. I saw a drop welling up in the finger-prick test to make sure I’m not anaemic (after genuinely not even feeling the tiny stabby thing piercing my flesh), but that was about it. When I was in the chair and one of the nurses was cleaning my inner elbow-bit with something cold and moist, I realised it must be needle time next, and swiftly fixed my attention on the opposite corner of the room, where it more or less stayed for the duration.

It hurt a little, but I am quite a serious wuss about pain, and even I handled it easily. The way I decided to think about it was that it was far less painful than banging my toe on a door, and I do that at least once a week. (The real anguish only came the next morning when I peeled off the plaster they’d patched me up with. I have quite hairy arms. Ow.)

I was only sat there for a few minutes, doing some of the gentle muscle-flexing exercises they advise you to do to keep your blood pressure up, before the machine by my chair started beeping the friendly beep which had been ringing out across the room all evening. Presumably, there was a transparent plastic bag full of my blood just by my side now – another image I didn’t want to see, and don’t want to contemplate.

The chair tilts quite far back while all this is going on, to make sure your brain’s still getting plenty of whatever blood you have left (or something). When it’s over, and the little cotton wad is stuck firmly over the teeny tiny hole in your arm, they lean you forward to a regular sitting position slowly, bit by bit. I started feeling a little woozy at this point, so they tilted me right back down and let me sit with my legs in the air for a few minutes while people brought me biscuits and cups of orange squash and held the straw right up to my mouth so I could drink. I’ve never had that in a hotel.

I was fine almost immediately, just a slight initial head rush, probably because I hadn’t eaten enough beforehand. (They check pretty thoroughly that you’re adequately nourished for the task, and make you drink plenty of water while you’re waiting. I’d assured them I was doing fine, but it had been a few hours since lunch.) The nurses made sure I’d recovered and sat me up slowly, I went and replenished my salt and fluids at the snack table, and off we went, job well done. (Kirsty had finished up and recovered some time ago by this point, seasoned veteran that she is.)

And then we had fish and chips, and someone somewhere survived an accident or operation in which they would otherwise have died.

I know that sounds flippantly self-aggrandising, and it is, but… it’s kinda true, too. There really is a direct correlation between giving blood and saving lives. Every time someone needs to be given blood to kept alive – because they’ve been injured, or are undergoing surgery, or have lost blood for any reason and need to be topped up – every time that happens, it’s with blood that someone donated like what I just did.

I’m not a doctor, but I read somewhere that over 70% of all people need to have blood inside them in order to live. And if they ever can’t make enough blood themselves, the only other place to get it is from another person.

Blood donation’s different from most other medicine like that. It’s not just that someone did some science and now we have this marvellous new medical technology to fix people, like with drugs or MRI machines. There’s plenty of that too, obviously, but we haven’t reached the point yet where we can just make new blood with science when people need it. It all has to come from donations, and it’s used directly to stop other people from dying.

That’s pretty sweet.

It’s past damn time that I became more of an advocate for this. If you’re in the UK, you can visit www.blood.co.uk to find out more about where and when you can go and donate. If you’re elsewhere, I’m sure similar resources aren’t hard to find online. It’s a seriously good thing to do, you get to be proper smug about yourself, and – and I can’t stress this enough – they bring you FREE BISCUITS.

Give blood.

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And worser…

There are some things that, in the 21st century, there’s just no fucking excuse for anyone to die of any more.

One of these things is a miscarriage which is prolonged for days, by medical experts who have all the necessary treatment and care and resources available to solve the problem, but elect not to do so for religious reasons.

The details of Savita Halappanavar’s case, and the reasons why it should be sparking all the outrage it has and more, are already all over the place. If you need someone to catch you up, I can recommend starting with Nelson Jones, Sarah Ditum, and Jennifer Keane.

In short: When you have repressive anti-abortion laws on the books, and insist on hoops that women must jump through before they can be permitted necessary medical procedures, then it’s a matter of when, not if, the “pro-life” position ends up killing people, and being “a Catholic country” means endorsing manslaughter.

Also, this shit’s still happening.

I’ll write about something cheerier soon, human condition permitting.

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A couple of things following on from yesterday’s post:

Alan Henness noticed an interesting shifting quality of the police reporting on the poppy-burning incident. Essentially, there’s a certain amount of confusion over whether the offense in question was mostly concerned with the arson itself, or the accompanying abusive caption which allegedly accompanied the picture.

According to some reports, the phrase “How about that you squadey cunts” was attached to the photo, and it may have been this which attracted the complaint(s) and gave ground for the arrest. I had read about this yesterday, but decided not to make it a significant point. As far as I can tell, it’s just more discussion about the rape victim’s attire. Yes, it’s a rude and insulting thing to say. I don’t doubt it would cause someone somewhere offence to read those words, and my first thought would be that anyone capable of uttering a phrase like that is likely an obnoxious twat. None of which makes a blind bit of difference to the lunacy of his being arrested over it.

Anyway, a little later Andy linked to another infuriating story about the white poppy. I mentioned the white poppy symbol briefly in my last post. It’s been around almost as long as its red counterpart, and was intended to have a more pacifist emphasis. With the red, some people in this country think it places too much emphasis on British soldiers, to the exclusion of combatants from other countries, and tacitly supports a militaristic mindset. If you want to remember everyone who’s died in war, with the intent of reinforcing ideas such as “Wow, let’s never do any of that again for any reason”, then maybe the white poppy’s for you.

It’s a low-key thing, offered as an alternative or complement to the ubiquitous popular choice. And, according to a candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner in Luton, it’s offensive and it desecrates the past.

Seriously, this is exactly what I was talking about yesterday when I mentioned the social compulsion that sometimes exists around the red poppy. In some people’s eyes, if you don’t do things our way, then you’re wrong, an outsider, and your actions are deplorable. If you dare to remember the past and honour the fallen in an unapproved fashion, then you deserve to be harangued and have any public expression of your feelings restricted.

The man who’d been laying a white wreath every Remembrance Day for 24 years, Marc Scheimann, had one English grandfather and one German – they both died in World War II, each with opposite allegiances. Their children, presumably, later married, in a rather glorious example of humanity’s ability to overcome tribal allegiances and hatred, and find common ground and solidarity.

Kevin Carroll didn’t seem interested in any of that. According to Mr Scheimann’s report:

He called me a scumbag and said when he was police commissioner he would make sure I went to jail for this.

This isn’t quite how Kevin Carroll remembers it. In his own words:

It will cause massive offence if Mr Scheimann is not prevented from laying his wreath of white poppies as they symbolise cowardice.

But he was allowed to lay it and then a drunk woman tried to remove it.

Remembrance is to pay honour but he was just there to desecrate it.

Which, frankly, doesn’t make him sound like any less of a dick.

If you’re so uninterested in the sometimes tricky details of reality, that the moment someone deviates from your accepted way of doing things even a little – even so far as to pick a different colour flower by which to remember the past with a slightly different attitude toward foreign affairs – you start to see them as an offensive and dangerous menace whose actions and words need to be suppressed…

…then, well, I don’t even know how to finish that sentence about you. But, wow. You suck.

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Someone took some of their own property, defaced it in a perfectly safe and easily avoidable manner, posted a picture of it online, and spent last night in a jail cell.

You’ve probably already heard about this, and no, I can’t make any more sense of it than you can.

The red poppy dates back to 1920 as a symbol of remembrance for soldiers who’ve died in war, and in Britain they can be seen being worn by pretty much everyone for, it seems, the several weeks surrounding November 11th, the day which saw the end of World War I.

It’s turned into something odd since then. The harmless artificial flower has started to become a focus point for an inexplicably intense sense of righteousness, indignation, and nationalism. Beyond simply something people do as a personal gesture of remembrance, it’s been turning into something you must do, and must do publicly enough that we all know you’re doing it, if you don’t want people to conclude that you hate Britain, or hate dead soldiers, or don’t care about the heroic sacrifice of something-or-other.

Those who most ardently claim to support the wearing of the poppy are also those most vocally encouraging this shift in attitudes, even though it goes against their purported interests. If it’s important to be able to wear a poppy to demonstrate your respect for the deceased, why would you work to make yourself indistinguishable from crowds of others, who bear the same emblem but don’t share your feelings – who wear the poppy more out of fear that they’d be branded “disrespectful” if they failed to do so, than from any sincere appreciation of the bravery of past generations? It seems counter-productive.

Similarly, show me an American who developed a greater respect for his country as a result of its coercive measures that prevent him from burning a flag. You can’t force people to feel the same way you do, and making them put on a show while hiding their true feelings serves no purpose except to help you live in a fantasy world, at the expense of others’ autonomy.

I’ve got a little distracted here by my opposition to certain zealously patriotic organisations and Facebook groups. What sparked my interest, though, was this 19-year-old guy being arrested and thrown in jail over an image of a poppy being set alight.

In every comment on this story, it seems obligatory to mention the nature of the sacrifice that the poppy represents, and bring to mind those who gave their lives fighting to defend the very freedoms which some people now use to defile a revered symbol.

The irony may be of some interest, but it’s irrelevant to the important point. Even if the concept of freedom had never had anybody die in an effort to defend it, locking people in a cage for burning a poppy in an act of disrespect is an insane way for any civilised country to behave.

And something else that should be irrelevant to how we respond to tyranny is the arsonist’s intentions, or how public he made his display, or how provocative he was attempting to be. A few weeks ago, when Islamic extremists were losing their shit over a blasphemous YouTube video, Penn Jillette was discussing it (I forget where) and said something like: “I wish we could all stop talking about what the rape victim was wearing”. A lot of people prefaced their condemnation of that religious violence by vociferously deploring any insult against Islam. It was an appalling, abusive, low-quality, tenth-rate film, we were told. This didn’t excuse the violence of the response, of course, but

Leave aside how apt a rape comparison is for something about poppies. It’s an analogy of principle; the details and the scale of it aren’t supposed to carry across. The point is, there’s really no good reason to give the tiniest fleck of a shred of an iota of a toss whether this guy’s a total ass, or how obnoxious a sentiment he may have been expressing in the caption to the image. What matters is that the police came and took him away from his home and forced him into a cell, because some people thought he was acting offensively by posting a picture of a burning flower online.

Our law is set up such that it’s entirely possible he’ll end up being charged with a serious crime, a conviction for which could land him in prison for a number of months, as well as branding him as a criminal for the rest of his life.

If you’re going to allow that, why not cram people into a cage against their will because they used swear words on a website that children might potentially visit? Or because they jumped into a river and got in some posh people’s way? Or because they commented that the Queen looks a bit bloody miserable in any given public appearance?

If that sounds ridiculous, it should. If it sounds like it could never happen… Don’t get complacent.

As an incidental postscript, white poppies are for peace.

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You’ll have already seen this picture. Wil Wheaton tweeted a link to it the other day, which I think officially makes it mandatory viewing for anyone on the internet.

It’s a handy, pithy, lightly humourous, serious-point-making chart of some of the differences between the two upcoming Presidential candidates in the US, comparing Obama’s generally progressive stance with Romney’s own comically backward positions.

Four years ago I would’ve been all over this shit. And I’m still not completely out of that mindset. Significant parts of me will be profoundly depressed if Romney wins the election. It’s just an instinctively, viscerally appalling thought, in a way that Obama’s continued presidency just isn’t quite yet.

But the seemingly high probability of Obama’s second term is scant comfort. And the graphic above is a fine example of what I refuse to find comforting, this time around, about the idea of a Democrat (phew!) who isn’t George Bush (mercy of mercies!) in the White House.

“Not hard enough on Wall Street” is a nice downplaying of the fact that Obama’s been about as good a friend as the super-rich could have hoped for. The mostly empty rhetoric about having billionaires “pay their fair share” was enough to get him branded as a despised socialist, by people who have no idea what actual socialism looks like, but he’s done very little to stop corporate power and wealth creeping every further toward the top.

“Took a while to warm up to gay marriage” means the government he’s in charge of still routinely discriminates against same-sex couples. Look, it’s nice that Obama doesn’t seem to actually have much of a problem with gay people, the way Romney pretty clearly does. But public opinion has been massively shifting in tolerance’s favour, and Obama’s views are a symptom of that, not a cause. Gay rights are obviously winning, and their victory is about people getting it right, not governments passing laws. It’s nice when they do pass the right laws, obviously, but given what Obama claims to believe about equality, he gets way too much credit for not being quite as oppressive and discriminatory in his policies as he could be.

“Continuing the drone strikes”? Well, that’s a lot of dead children you’re euphemising away there.

A lot of the statist left arguments focus on how much worse things would surely be under a Republican than a Democrat, which encourages this kind of brushing away of minor niggling points like the mass murder of foreigners. They’ll admit that Obama has some flaws, hasn’t achieved as much as they’d hoped, does some things they wish he wouldn’t. But look at the alternative.

I was convinced, in 2008. I stayed up on election night watching the news until fairly late here, when the first results were starting to trickle in. Then I spontaneously woke myself up at around 5.30am, turned the radio on just in time to hear a news update with the announcement of the winner, and went back to sleep with an immense sigh of relief. Finally, the nightmare was over. Bush was out, and the sensible, progressive, nice one was in instead. Everyone knows Democrats are at least better than Republicans. They might not be great, but at least they’re not awful.

And during Obama’s first term, he signed the National Defense Authorization Act, giving the government unprecedented authority to detain basically anyone they like without trial or legal recourse, and he deported more immigrants than Bush did in the same time-span, and he stepped up raids on legal marijuana dispensaries, and he granted fewer pardons than any other president, and he just kept on droning the fuck out of brown people, and it’s getting really hard to even see him as the lesser of two evils.

(By the way, if you acknowledge that Obama is the lesser of two evils, and think this is a reason we should vote for him anyway, but you still do so with enthusiasm – or really anything other than weary, disgusted resignation – than you need to look up “evil” in the dictionary and give yourself a reminder.)

The assumption, which still pervades a lot of my own thinking, that things will necessarily be massively worse under a Republican President because the Republicans are obviously terrible, really doesn’t seem to stand up as well as it used to. And I’m finding it harder to see Obama’s continued supporters as being as well-meaning as I thought I was, four long years ago.

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A recent article by Mehdi Hasan about being pro-life has been widely, and rightly, criticised. Here’s one good example of that.

Rather than go over again the various problems with Hasan’s attempts to reconcile an anti-abortion stance with his “lefty” politics, I was given pause by one particular observation, about his style of engaging with opponents:

Hasan employs an undermining tactic that he uses to subtle, although powerful effect, throughout his piece. His opponents are emotional rather than logical: they are “provoked” to “howls of anguish” by Hitchens’s “solid” “reasoning”; they “fetishize” their position in opposition to pro-lifers who “talk”. He accuses pro-choicers of “smearing” him; he asks them not to “throw [his] faith in [his] face”. And yet in the same article he repeatedly “smears” them with oppositional language that positions him on the side of logic and social progressiveness, relegating pro-choicers to the illogical side of the raging ego of neoliberalism.

Part of the reason this struck me as much as it did is because I’m certain I must have done this quite a bit myself.

It’s an easy trap to fall into. It takes some deliberate thought to remember why it’s a bad idea, when you’re trying to write something evocative and convincing. It’s easy to slide into some forms of intellectual laziness when you’re focusing on trying to craft some clever sentences.

And it’s not like the terms in the scare quotes have no value whatever in discourse. Reasoning can be more or less solid; the tone of an argument can make it seem emotionally fuelled, or unreasonably angry.

But not everyone who disagrees with you is a shrill, screeching harpy. Even if they disagree with you about something really important. They might well be trying to make their point, trying to make themselves understood, standing up against what they see as their opponents’ frustrating failure to get the point, and sometimes lapsing into unfair characterisations or snark. Much like yourself.

I’m going to try to bear this in mind more in future.

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