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Posts Tagged ‘Chris Gunness

Rise of Default Man And its fall

White blob, middle-class, heterosexual, middle-aged Silent Majority man

Note: Re-edit of “The rise and fall of Default Man. November 2, 2014″

Paddle your canoe up the River Thames and you will come round the bend and see a forest of huge totems jutting into the sky.

Great shiny monoliths in various phallic shapes, they are the wondrous cultural artifacts of a remarkable tribe.

We all know someone from this powerful tribe but we very rarely, if ever, ascribe their power to the fact that they have a particular tribal identity.

Grayson Perry in The rise and fall of Default Man, October 8, 2014

How did the straight, white, middle-class Default Man take control of our society?

And how can he be dethroned?

I think this tribe, a small minority of our native population, needs closer examination.

In the UK, its members probably make up about 10% of the population (see infographic below); globally, probably less than 1%.

Attack of the clones: Default Man is so entrenched in society that he is “like a Death Star hiding behind the moon”. Artwork by Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry’s guest-edited issue of the New Statesman is on sale on Thursday 9 October. Visit newstatesman.com/subscribe to get a copy

They dominate the upper echelons of our society, imposing, unconsciously or otherwise, their values and preferences on the rest of the population.

With their colourful textile phallus hanging round their necks, they make up an overwhelming majority in government, in boardrooms and also in the media.

They are, of course, white, middle-class, heterosexual men, usually middle-aged.

And every component of that description has historically played a part in making this tribe a group that punches far, far above its weight.

I have struggled to find a name for this identity that will trip off the tongue, or that doesn’t clutter the page with unpronounceable acronyms such as WMCMAHM.

“The White Blob” was a strong contender but in the end I opted to call him Default Man.

I like the word “default”, for not only does it mean “the result of not making an active choice”, but two of its synonyms are “failure to pay” and “evasion”, which seems incredibly appropriate, considering the group I wish to talk about.

Today, in politically correct 21st-century Britain, you might think things would have changed but somehow the Great White Male has thrived and continues to colonise the high-status, high-earning, high-power roles

(93% of executive directors in the UK are white men; 77% of parliament is male).

The Great White Male’s combination of good education, manners, charm, confidence and sexual attractiveness (or “money”, as I like to call it) means he has a strong grip on the keys to power.

Of course, the main reason he has those qualities in the first place is what he is, not what he has achieved.

John Scalzi, in his blog Whatever, thought that being a straight white male was like playing the computer game called Life with the difficulty setting on “Easy”.

If you are a Default Man you look like power.

I must confess that I qualify in many ways to be a Default Man myself but I feel that by coming from a working-class background and being an artist and a transvestite, I have enough cultural distance from the towers of power. I have space to turn round and get a fairly good look at the edifice.

In the course of making my documentary series about identity, Who Are You?, for Channel 4, the identity I found hardest to talk about, the most elusive, was Default Man’s.

Somehow, his world-view, his take on society, now so overlaps with the dominant narrative that it is like a Death Star hiding behind the moon.

We cannot unpick his thoughts and feelings from the “proper, right-thinking” attitudes of our society. It is like in the past, when people who spoke in cut-glass, RP, BBC tones would insist they did not have an accent, only northerners and poor people had one of those.

We live and breathe in a Default Male world: no wonder he succeeds, for much of our society operates on his terms.

Chris Huhne (60, Westminster, PPE Mag­dalen, self-destructively heterosexual), the Default Man we chose to interview for our series, pooh-poohed any suggestion when asked if he benefited from membership or if he represented this group.

Lone Default Man will never admit to, or be fully aware of, the tribal advantages of his identity. They are, naturally, full subscribers to that glorious capitalist project, they are individuals!

This adherence to being individuals is the nub of the matter. Being “individual” means that if they achieve something good, it is down to their own efforts.

They got the job because they are brilliant, not because they are a Default Man, and they are also presumed more competent by other Default Men.

If they do something bad it is also down to the individual and not to do with their gender, race or class.

If a Default Man commits a crime it is not because fraud or sexual harassment, say, are endemic in his tribe (coughs), it is because he is a wrong ’un.

If a Default Man gets emotional it is because he is a “passionate” individual, whereas if he were a woman it would often be blamed on her sex.

When we talk of identity, we often think of groups such as black Muslim lesbians in wheelchairs. This is because identity only seems to become an issue when it is challenged or under threat.

Our classic Default Man is rarely under existential threat; consequently, his identity remains unexamined. It ambles along blithely, never having to stand up for its rights or to defend its homeland.

When talking about identity groups, the word “community” often crops up. The working class, gay people, black people or Muslims are always represented by a “community leader”.

We rarely, if ever, hear of the white middle-class community. “Communities” are defined in the eye of Default Man.

Community seems to be a euphemism for the vulnerable lower orders. Community is “other”.

Communities usually seem to be embattled, separate from society.

“Society” is what Default Man belongs to.

In news stories such as the alleged “Trojan Horse” plot in Birmingham schools and the recent child-abuse scandal in Rotherham, the central involvement of an ethnic or faith “community” skews the attitudes of police, social services and the media.

The Muslim or Pakistani heritage of those accused becomes the focus.

I’m not saying that faith and ethnic groups don’t have their particular problems but the recipe for such trouble is made up of more than one spicy, foreign ingredient.

I would say it involves more than a few handfuls of common-or-garden education/class issues, poor mental health and, of course, the essential ingredient in nearly all nasty or violent problems, men.

Yeah, men – bit like them Default Men but without suits on.

In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, published in 1975, Laura Mulvey coined the term “the male gaze”. She was writing about how the gaze of the movie camera reflected the heterosexual male viewpoint of the directors (a viewpoint very much still with us, considering that only 9% of the top 250 Hollywood films in 2012 were directed by women and only 2% of the cinematographers were female).

The Default Male gaze does not just dominate cinema, it looks down on society like the eye on Sauron’s tower in The Lord of the Rings.

Every other identity group is “othered” by it. It is the gaze of the expensively nondescript corporate leader watching consumers adorn themselves with his company’s products the better to get his attention.

Default Man feels he is the reference point from which all other values and cultures are judged. Default Man is the zero longitude of identities.

He has forged a society very much in his own image, to the point where now much of what other groups think and feel is the same. They take on the attitudes of Default Man because they are the attitudes of our elders, our education, our government, our media.

If Default Men approve of something it must be good, and if they disapprove it must be bad, so people end up hating themselves, because their internalised Default Man is berating them for being female, gay, black, silly or wild.

I often hear women approvingly describe themselves or other women as feisty.

Feisty, I feel, has sexist implications, as if standing up for yourself was exceptional in a woman. It sounds like a word that a raffish Lothario would use about a difficult conquest.

I once gave a talk on kinky sex and during the questions afterwards a gay woman floated an interesting thought: “Is the legalising of gay marriage an attempt to neutralise the otherness of homosexuals?” she asked. Was the subversive alternative being neutered by allowing gays to marry and ape a hetero lifestyle?

Many gay people might have enjoyed their dangerous outsider status. Had Default Man implanted a desire to be just like him?

Is the fact that we think like Default Man the reason why a black female Doctor Who has not happened, that it might seem “wrong” or clunky? In my experience, when I go to the doctor I am more likely to see a non-white woman than a Default Man.

It is difficult to tweezer out the effect of Default Man on our culture, so ingrained is it after centuries of their rules.

A friend was once on a flight from Egypt. As it came in to land at Heathrow he looked down at the rows of mock-Tudor stockbroker-belt houses in west London. Pointing them out, he said to the Egyptian man sitting next to him: “Oh well, back to boring old England.” The Egyptian replied, “Ah, but to me this is very exotic.” And he was right.

To much of the world the Default Englishman is a funny foreign folk icon, with his bowler hat, his Savile Row suit and Hugh Grant accent, living like Reggie Perrin in one of those polite suburban semis.

All the same, his tribal costume and rituals have probably clothed and informed the global power elite more than any other culture. Leaders wear his clothes, talk his language and subscribe to some version of his model of how society “should be”.

When I was at art college in the late Seventies/early Eighties, one of the slogans the feminists used was: “Objectivity is Male Subjectivity.”

This brilliantly encapsulates how male power nestles in our very language, exerting influence at the most fundamental level. Men, especially Default Men, have put forward their biased, highly emotional views as somehow “rational”, more considered, more “calm down, dear”.

Women and “exotic” minorities are framed as “passionate” or “emotional” as if they, the Default Men, had this unique ability to somehow look round the side of that most interior lens, the lens that is always distorted by our feelings.

Default Man somehow had a dispassionate, empirical, objective vision of the world as a birthright, and everyone else was at the mercy of turbulent, uncontrolled feelings. That explained why the “others” often held views that were at such odds with their supposedly cool, analytic vision of the world.

Recently, footage of the UN spokesman Chris Gunness breaking down in tears as he spoke of the horrors occurring in Gaza went viral.

It was newsworthy because reporters and such spokespeople are supposed to be dispassionate and impartial. To show such feelings was to be “unprofessional”. And lo! The inherited mental health issues of Default Man are cast as a necessity for serious employment.

I think Default Man should be made aware of the costs and increasing obsolescence of this trait, celebrated as “a stiff upper lip”.

This habit of denying, recasting or suppressing emotion may give him the veneer of “professionalism” but, as David Hume put it: “Reason is a slave of the passions.”

To be unaware of or unwilling to examine feelings means those feelings have free rein to influence behaviour unconsciously. Unchecked, they can motivate Default Man covertly, unacknowledged, often wreaking havoc.

Even if rooted in long-past events in the deep unconscious, these emotions still fester, churning in the dark at the bottom of the well. Who knows what unconscious, screwed-up “personal journeys” are being played out on the nation by emotionally illiterate Default Men?

Being male and middle class and being from a generation that still valued the stiff upper lip means our Default Man is an ideal candidate for low emotional awareness. He sits in a gender/ class/age nexus marked “Unexploded Emotional Time Bomb”.

These people have been in charge of our world for a long time.

Things may be changing.

Women are often stereotyped as the emotional ones, and men as rational. But, after the 2008 crash, the picture looked different, as Hanna Rosin wrote in an article in the Atlantic titled “The End of Men”:

Researchers have started looking into the relationship between testosterone and excessive risk, and wondering if groups of men, in some basic hormonal way, spur each other to make reckless decisions.

The picture emerging is a mirror image of the traditional gender map: men and markets on the side of the irrational and overemotional, and women on the side of the cool and level-headed.

Over the centuries, empirical, clear thinking has become branded with the image of Default Men. They were the ones granted the opportunity, the education, the leisure, the power to put their thoughts out into the world. In people’s minds, what do professors look like?

What do judges should look like? What do leaders look like?

The very aesthetic of seriousness has been monopolised by Default Man. Practically every person on the globe who wants to be taken seriously in politics, business and the media dresses up in some way like a Default Man, in a grey, western, two-piece business suit.

Not for nothing is it referred to as “power dressing”.

We’ve all seen those photo ops of world leaders: colour and pattern shriek out as anachronistic. Consequently, many women have adopted this armour of the unremarkable.

Angela Merkel, the most powerful woman in the world, wears a predictable unfussy, feminised version of the male look. Hillary Clinton has adopted a similar style. Some businesswomen describe this need to tone down their feminine appearance as “taking on the third gender”.

Peter Jones on Dragons’ Den was once referred to as “eccentric” for wearing brightly coloured stripy socks. So rigid is the Default Man look that men’s suit fashions pivot on tiny changes of detail at a glacial pace. US politicians wear such a narrow version of the Default Man look that you rarely see one wearing a tie that is not plain or striped.

Suits you, sir: Grayson Perry as Default Man.
Photo: Kalpesh Lathigra/New Statesman

One tactic that men use to disguise their subjectively restricted clothing choices is the justification of spurious function.

As if they need a watch that splits lap times and works 300 feet underwater, or a Himalayan mountaineer’s jacket for a walk in the park. The rufty-tufty army/hunter camouflage pattern is now to boys as pink is to girls. Curiously, I think the real function of the sober business suit is not to look smart but as camouflage.

A person in a grey suit is invisible, in the way burglars often wear hi-vis jackets to pass as unremarkable “workmen”.

The business suit is the uniform of those who do the looking, the appraising.

It rebuffs comment by its sheer ubiquity. Many office workers loathe dress-down Fridays because they can no longer hide behind a suit. They might have to expose something of their messy selves through their “casual” clothes.

Modern, over-professionalised politicians, having spent too long in the besuited tribal compound, find casual dress very difficult to get right convincingly.

David Cameron, while ruining Converse basketball shoes for the rest of us, never seemed to me as if he belonged in a pair.

When I am out and about in an eye-catching frock, men often remark to me, “Oh, I wish I could dress like you and did not have to wear a boring suit.” Have to!

The male role is heavily policed from birth, by parents, peers and bosses. Politicians in particular are harshly kept in line by a media that seems to uphold more bizarrely rigid standards of conformity than those held by any citizen.

Each component of the Default Male role – his gender, his class, his age and his sexuality – confines him to an ever narrower set of behaviours, until riding a bicycle or growing a beard, having messy hair or enjoying a pint are seen as ker-azy eccentricity.

The fashionable members’ club Shoreditch House, the kind of place where “creatives” with two iPhones and three bicycles hang out, has a “No Suits” rule. How much of this is a pseudo-rebellious pose and how much is in recognition of the pernicious effect of the overgrown schoolboy’s uniform, I do not know.

I dwell on the suit because I feel it exemplifies how the upholders of Default Male values hide in plain sight. Imagine if, by democratic decree, the business suit was banned, like certain items of Islamic dress have been banned in some countries. Default Men would flounder and complain that they were not being treated with “respect”.

The most pervasive aspect of the Default Man identity is that it masquerades very efficiently as “normal” – and “normal”, along with “natural”, is a dangerous word, often at the root of hateful prejudice.

As Sherrie Bourg Carter, author of High-Octane Women, writes:

Women in today’s workforce . . . are experiencing a much more camouflaged foe – second-generation gender biases . . . “work cultures and practices that appear neutral and natural on their face”, yet they reflect masculine values and life situations of men.

Personally, working in the arts, I do not often encounter Default Man en masse, but when I do it is a shock. I occasionally get invited to formal dinners in the City of London and on arrival, I am met, in my lurid cocktail dress, with a sea of dinner jackets; my expectations of a satisfying conversation drop.

I feel rude mentioning the black-clad elephant in the room. I sense that I am the anthropologist allowed in to the tribal ritual.

This weird minority, these curiously dominant white males, are anything but normal. “Normal,” as Carl Jung said, “is the ideal aim for the unsuccessful.” They like to keep their abnormal power low-key: the higher the power, the duller the suit and tie, a Mercedes rather than a Rolls, just another old man chatting casually to prime ministers at the wedding of a tabloid editor.

Revolution is happening. I am loath to use the R word because bearded young men usually characterise it as sudden and violent. But that is just another unhelpful cliché.

I feel real revolutions happen thoughtfully in peacetime. A move away from the dominance of Default Man is happening, but way too slowly.

Such changes in society seem to happen at a pace set by incremental shifts in the animal spirits of the population. I have heard many of the “rational” (ie, male) arguments against quotas and positive discrimination but I feel it is a necessary fudge to enable just change to happen in the foreseeable future. At the present rate of change it will take more than a hundred years before the UK parliament is 50% female.

The outcry against positive discrimination is the wail of someone who is having their privilege taken away. For talented black, female and working-class people to take their just place in the limited seats of power, some of those Default Men are going to have to give up their seats.

Perhaps Default Man needs to step down from some of his most celebrated roles. I’d happily watch a gay black James Bond and an all-female Top GearQI or Have I Got News for You.

Jeremy Paxman should have been replaced by a woman on Newsnight. More importantly, we need a quota of MPs who (shock) have not been to university but have worked on the shop floor of key industries; have had life experiences that reflect their constituents’; who actually represent the country rather than just a narrow idea of what a politician looks like.

The ridiculousness of objections to quotas would become clear if you were to suggest that, instead of calling it affirmative action, we adopted “Proportionate Default Man Quotas” for government and business. We are wasting talent. Women make up a majority of graduates in such relevant fields as law.

Default Man seems to be the embodiment of George Bernard Shaw unreasonable man: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to make the world adapt to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Default Man’s days may be numbered; a lot of his habits are seen at best as old-fashioned or quaint and at worst as redundant, dangerous or criminal. He carries a raft of unhelpful habits and attitudes gifted to him from history – adrenaline addiction, a need for certainty, snobbery, emotional constipation and an overdeveloped sense of entitlement – which have often proved disastrous for society and can also stop poor Default Man from leading a fulfilling life.

Earlier this year, at the Being A Man festival at the Southbank Centre in London, I gave a talk on masculinity called: “Men, Sit Down for your Rights!”. A jokey title, yes, but one making a serious point: that perhaps, if men were to loosen their grip on power, there might be some benefits for them.

The straitjacket of the Default Man identity is not necessarily one happily donned by all members of the tribe: many struggle with the bad fit of being leader, provider, status hunter, sexual predator, respectable and dignified symbol of straight achievement.

Maybe the “invisible weightless backpack” that the US feminist Peggy McIntosh uses to describe white privilege, full of “special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks”, does weight rather a lot after all.

In a phrase used more often in association with Operation Yewtree, they are among us and hide in plain sight.

The story of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria?

On 18 January 2014, barely five miles from the centre of Damascus – with President Bashar al‑Assad’s office complex visible in the distance – a small crowd of desperate people emerged from a seemingly uninhabited wasteland of bomb-shattered buildings.

News had spread throughout Yarmouk, a district of the capital that is home to Syria’s largest community of Palestinians, that the government and rebel groups had agreed to allow a delivery of food, briefly opening a crack in a year-long siege that had starved the area’s civilians and caused dozens of deaths.

Families had sent their strongest members to collect the newly arrived supplies, and the hungry throng filled the entire width of a street, throwing up dust in the morning light.

The relief workers making the delivery recalled one woman, gaunt with malnutrition, who fell down and was too weak to rise. She died on the spot. The scenes were such that some of these experienced aid workers needed trauma counselling when they returned to headquarters in Damascus.

There was only enough food for a few hundred families.

Thousands of disappointed people staggered home empty-handed. But officials from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), established to aid Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East, hoped that the delivery had set a precedent.

They had not publicised it in advance – there was concern that excessive attention would anger the Syrian government – and were reluctant to invite journalists to observe a mission that might have been aborted for security reasons. Four days earlier, an attempted delivery had been abandoned after a mortar exploded very close to the convoy.

After the successful delivery on 18 January, UNRWA officials decided discretion was no longer the best policy.

On 31 January, a convoy delivering food to Yarmouk was accompanied by a local photographer, who took a picture of the vast crowd surging through a street lined with the ruins of destroyed buildings.

This image quickly became an emblem of the Syrian conflict.

To draw attention to the plight of the besieged civilians UNRWA launched a social media campaign (#LetUsThrough) in which millions clicked on a petition to put the image on two of the world’s highest-profile billboards. In Times Square, New York and the Shibuya district of Tokyo people stood in front of giant screens taking selfies, which were then beamed back to Yarmouk as a show of solidarity.

This was how Yarmouk entered the world’s consciousness: a refugee camp designed as a safe haven for the Palestinian diaspora that had become the worst place on earth.

No electricity for months. No piped water. (Reminds me of Lebanon?). No access for food.

Worse still, no chance for people to leave or return, except for a handful of emergency medical cases or the few who had the means to pay people-smugglers to get them through the multiple checkpoints.

Some called it Syria’s Gaza, but its plight was even worse, because the siege was more comprehensive; Yarmouk was a prison from which there was no escape.

But notoriety can be short-lived.

When Gaza came under Israeli bombardment in July 2014 and the world’s media rushed to report the carnage, Yarmouk slipped back into obscurity.  (Coordinated events?)

The opening in the siege that UNRWA had negotiated in January 2014 applied only fitfully throughout the year: food deliveries were only possible on 131 days, and often less than half the amount required got through.

Since 6 December, the siege has once again become impassable.

UNRWA reports that it has not been able to deliver any food at all for the past 12 weeks. “We are getting new reports of people dying of malnutrition and of women dying in childbirth, but nothing can be confirmed,” said Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesperson. Unlike in Gaza, where UNRWA has several offices, the organisation cannot enter Yarmouk at all.

Hafez al-Assad

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Late Hafez al-Assad (died of cancer in 2000). Photograph: Enric Marti/AP

As Syria’s civil war enters its fourth year, other towns and villages are suffering long sieges, usually by Assad’s forces but sometimes, as in the case of Nubul and Zahra, two Shia villages north-west of Aleppo, by anti-Assad rebels.

Still, Yarmouk stands out, partly because of the large number of trapped civilians – estimated to be around 18,000 – but also because of its political significance.  (Yarmouk hosted 170,000 people before the civil war)

Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for three decades before power passed to his son on his death in 2000, cast his country as the cornerstone of the Arab “axis of resistance” against Israel.

This required that he be seen as the supreme defender of Palestinian rights; a leader who would ensure that Palestinian refugees in Syria lived better than those anywhere else in the Middle East.

For Yarmouk to come under the control of anti-Assad rebels, and then be bombarded by government forces – to become a spectacle of suffering far worse than Gaza – marked an indelible stain on the mantle that Bashar al-Assad inherited from his father.

Before the Syrian civil war began, Yarmouk was home to 150,000 Palestinians. Though people still refer to it as a “camp”, tents were replaced with solid housing soon after its founding in 1957.

In time it became just another district of Damascus. As well as being home to Syria’s largest community of Palestinian refugees, it also housed some 650,000 Syrians.

Nidal Bitari, a co-founder of the Palestinian Association for Human Rights in Syria, fled the country at the end of 2011 after being tipped off that he was wanted by the Assad regime’s security services.

But, like most of the Palestinians in Yarmouk, he wanted to stay neutral when the uprising began. As Bitari wrote in a detailed account of Yarmouk’s recent political history published in 2013, Palestinians in Syria lived under better conditions than in any other Arab state:

“By law they enjoy almost all the rights and benefits of Syrian nationals except citizenship and the right to vote. They have full access to Syrian schools and universities on the same basis as citizens … And because their numbers are tiny compared to the general Syrian population (less than 2%), the refugees were never perceived as a threat, and the degree of integration between Palestinians and Syrians – through work, education, and intermarriage – has no parallel in the Arab world.”

(As the civil war raged, the Palestinians paying allegiance to Hamas and Fateh allied to the Syrian extremistIslamist  forces of Al Nusra)

When I first visited Yarmouk in March 2003, it was a hotbed of anger towards the American invasion of Iraq, which had just began.

While other Arab countries muted criticism of US policy or quietly supported George W Bush and Tony Blair, the Syrian state media was full of denunciations. Scores of young Palestinian men from the camp had crossed into Iraq to fight the Americans, often disappearing without telling their own families.

I came across a wake in one narrow back street. It was the third day of mourning for a young man named Issam. He had telephoned home for the first time as he was about to cross into Iraq.

In a bus from Damascus with other volunteers from half a dozen Arab countries, the young Palestinian told his father that he and two cousins were going off to war.

Six days of silence followed, as his family watched TV footage from Iraq even more intently than before. Then one of the cousins phoned: Issam had never even reached Baghdad.

Less than five hours after calling his parents,he died in a hail of fire from a US helicopter. Thirteen other unarmed men in the three buses were killed. The cousin escaped with minor wounds.

When Syrians began to rise up in protest against the government of Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, the situation threatened to unsettle the relatively stable position of Palestinians within the country.

Palestinian groups were closely monitored by the Syrian security services and they were expected to remain uninvolved in the nation’s politics.

According to Bitari, the trigger for Yarmouk’s entrapment in the intensifying conflict came from the Syrian government rather than the opposition.

In May 2011, during the preparations for Nakba Day, which commemorates the expulsion of Palestinian refugees during the creation of Israel in 1948, representatives of the Assad regime began to promote the idea of a demonstration at the Israeli border on the Golan Heights.

Bitari and his friends were wary, suspecting that the regime wanted to divert attention from the internal uprising. He described their decision to form a “youth coalition of Palestinians” in Yarmouk to coordinate decisions pertaining to the camp, which included representatives from each of the Palestinian political factions inside.

The group’s first meeting concerned the Nakba Day protests, and a majority opposed any participation. But on the morning of Nakba Day the government supplied buses, which hundreds of people got on.

At the border, the Syrian army let the buses through the demarcation lines and several protesters climbed the fence that blocks access to Israeli-controlled territory (occupied Golan Heights?). Israeli troops used tear gas and live rounds. Three people died.

A month later, on Naksa Day – the anniversary of the defeat of Arab armies by Israel in the 1967 six-day war – minivans sent by Syrian security took about 50 Yarmouk residents to the border, where they were joined by several hundred other young people. Syrian state TV cameras were on hand to film what happened.

Again people tried to scale the fence, and this time 23 were shot dead by Israeli forces – 12 of them from Yarmouk, according to Bitari.

Though the Israelis fired the bullets, “the rage was almost as great against the factions for not doing anything to stop the bloodshed”, as Bitari said.

The next day the funeral of the victims was attended by 30,000 people.

Angry mourners surrounded the headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC, a faction led by Ahmed Jibril, which rejected the Oslo accords.)  The PFLP-GC was a firm supporter of the Syrian government and was seen by many residents as the regime’s enforcer in the camp. When a PFLP-GC security guard shot and killed a 14-year-old boy, the crowd stormed the building and set it on fire. Jibril had to be rescued by the Syrian army.

This event embarrassed Bashar al-Assad and encouraged Syrian opposition groups to see Yarmouk as a potential support base for the uprising against him.

Yarmouk’s geographical position, wedge-shaped with its apex pointing at the heart of Damascus, gave it strategic value.

The district was bordered by two poorer Syrian suburbs, al Hajar al Aswad and Tadamon, which were already being infiltrated by opposition fighters. To the south was open countryside, which was easy for them to move through.

Bitari and his friends still hoped to keep Yarmouk neutral. They were alarmed when the Syrian government, shaken by the anti-PFLP-GC protest and the threat of rebel advances, gave Jibril’s men the right to parade with weapons.

This escalation encouraged the Free Syrian Army – at that time the main opposition group, backed by western governments – to plan to move into the camp and seize it from Syrian government control.

The Palestinian youth coalition’s efforts had failed. The group disbanded in despair. Civilians who wanted to avoid their district being militarised and dragged into conflict found themselves isolated. The same dynamic was affecting most of the rest of the country.

For the Free Syrian Army, Yarmouk was a particularly valued prize after Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas in exile who had lived in Damascus for more than a decade, moved to Qatar in February 2012.

Meshaal felt unable to accede to the Syrian government’s pleas that he condemns the anti-regime uprising. Instead, he accepted an invitation from Qatar, one of the armed opposition’s main financial backers. It was a severe blow to Assad’s credentials as leader of the axis of resistance.

In December 2012 the FSA and the al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra were ready for a concerted attack to capture Damascus and topple Assad.

Yarmouk was the gateway to the capital, closer to the centre than any of the other suburbs where the regime was losing control.

The crisis came to a head on 16 December, when a Syrian air force plane bombed Yarmouk in what the government later claimed was a mistake. Dozens of civilians were killed. Brigades from the FSA and Jabhat al Nusra seized the opportunity to enter the camp – and in response, the government launched a hail of artillery shells, turning most buildings on the edge of the district to rubble.

A girl receives soup from Kafaf, a charitable foundation, in Yarmouk

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A girl receives soup from Kafaf, a charitable foundation, in Yarmouk Photograph: Reuters

Within a few days most of the PFLP-GC, the main Palestinian faction supporting the Assad regime, had fled Yarmouk; some defected to the rebels who went on to gain full control.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians left. The Syrians of Yarmouk mainly went to relatives and friends in central Damascus or other cities, or moved to Lebanon and Jordan.

Palestinians fled to what they hoped would be safer areas inside Syria. Although rebel efforts to capture the rest of Damascus failed, Yarmouk remains in rebel hands today. Some 18,000 civilians still live there, including anywhere between 1,000 and 4,000 Syrians. Still, it is clear that Yarmouk has reverted to being a largely Palestinian enclave.

Assad’s government responded to its defeat in Yarmouk by putting the area under siege.

For a few months food could still be brought in from the rural areas to the south, though profiteering was intense.

In July 2013 the government tightened its grip and the siege became almost total. Inside Yarmouk fighting erupted between the FSA and Jabhat al Nusra, the latter of which had set up sharia courts.

Spasmodic attempts were made to relieve the suffering of Yarmouk’s civilians. In the spring of 2013 Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, even proposed that all of Yarmouk’s 150,000 Palestinian residents move to the West Bank or Gaza. In November 2013, Abbas sent a team to Damascus to discuss humanitarian relief and a ceasefire between the rebels and the government. The idea was to open a safe corridor for the movement of supplies and displaced civilians, but no deal was ever reached.

In September 2014, I met Abu Akram, a member of the PFPL-GC leadership, in a flat on the edge of Yarmouk. A tall older man with one arm in a brace, who moved to Yarmouk from Lebanon in 1994, he had taken part in the abortive ceasefire negotiations with the Syrian opposition, whose breakdown he blamed on the Islamists. A tough, battle-hardened figure firmly allied to the Assad regime, he showed no embarrassment in defending the siege. It was a legitimate tactic, he claimed, in part because the food from UNRWA that was allowed into Yarmouk ended up in the hands of the rebel fighters, for their own use or for sale on the black market.

“We saw that the armed groups were taking food from civilians,” he said, then claimed that boxes of aid meant for Yarmouk could be seen for sale in a nearby district. He even criticised the decision to relax the pressure in early 2014. “It was a mistake to break the siege,” he said. “If we had continued by another week, hunger would have forced them to give up.”

The barbaric nature of sieges has remained unchanged for thousands of years.

The aim is to starve the trapped civilians into submission, in the hope they will turn against whatever armed faction controls the territory and persuade them to surrender. The armed faction, in turn, wants to keep the civilians inside so as to make it less likely the besieging army will bring destruction upon the captives.

Now, in the 21st century, the very same tactics are being deployed not only in Yarmouk but in several other parts of Syria.

Sieges fuel a war economy in which those who man the checkpoints can run a lucrative business selling permission to leave or return. They encourage smuggling of people and food, and keep prices in the camp’s few markets artificially high.

When I visited Yarmouk’s northern entrance in September 2014, I found nothing but bleakness. Syrian government soldiers stood guard near a crossroads known as Battikha – “watermelon” – Square, so named for a green monument of a globe that stands amid a clump of palm trees in the middle of the street. The only route into the camp required a walk through a narrow alley between two five-storey buildings that had most of their windows blown out. The neighbouring alley was shielded by huge white padded sheets strung from the upper floors of buildings on either side – makeshift screens intended to stop rebel snipers from targeting anyone walking in the square.

A young woman in hijab was standing near the entrance, weeping as she and a male companion talked with the officer in charge of the checkpoint. After a few minutes of conversation that ended on what looked to be a frustrating note, the woman and her friend pulled back, then wandered up and down the street, apparently debating whether to try another tack to convince the officer or just give up and leave.

Palestine refugees in Yarmouk queue for food distributed by UNRWA.

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Palestine refugees in Yarmouk queue for food distributed by UNRWA. Photograph: HOPD/AP

“I am trapped,” the woman, named Reem Buqaee, told me. She had been given permission to leave Yarmouk three months earlier with her three teenage daughters. The oldest one was pregnant. Owing to malnutrition, she was suffering from anaemia so severe that she was at risk of losing her baby. The other two girls also had medical problems. But leaving the camp had meant splitting the family. The husband of the pregnant woman could not leave the camp, nor could Reem’s husband, or her 16-year-old son. Rebel groups were eager to keep people in the camp, she said, particularly men and boys. Their departure was seen as defection from the opposition cause as well as potentially making it easier for government troops to enter the camp by force and regain control.

Buqaee’s daughter had safely given birth and the other girls had regained their strength, so she wanted to take them back into Yarmouk.

“I had to choose between living in a prison under siege but alongside my husband and son, or stay outside Yarmouk separated but free,” she said.

On this particular day, she had come to the camp entrance to see whether her request to return had been granted, but the officer told her he had not received orders to let her and her daughters and baby grand-daughter inside. “Our house is only 100 metres from here, just inside the camp. It’s so near but very far,” she said.

The next day, I visited Buqaee at an overcrowded flat in the Dummar suburb of Damascus, where a distant relative had given her and her daughters temporary shelter.

A thick atmosphere of fear surrounds any discussion of Yarmouk. This affects everyone from UNRWA officials to Yarmouk residents. People worry that their families will suffer if they publicly attribute blame to the regime or the rebels for the siege, the collapse of ceasefire talks, and the impossibility of escaping.

UNRWA officials are concerned about losing the minimal access they have to Yarmouk if they say anything that might be misinterpreted by one side or the other. When I spoke to residents who had left the camp for other parts of Damascus, but who talk regularly with siblings and parents still inside, they refused to be quoted, explaining that people are scared of reprisals from both the regime and the anti-Assad forces inside the camp.

Buqaee, however, described the horrors of the siege without hesitation: women dying in childbirth, infants killed by malnutrition.

There was no anger or hysteria in her voice, just a calm recollection of facts. “You couldn’t buy bread. At the worst point a kilo of rice cost 12,000 Syrian pounds (£41), now it is 800 pounds (£2.75) compared to 100 Syrian pounds (34p) in central Damascus. It was 900 pounds (£3.10) for a kilo of tomatoes, compared to 100 here,” Reem recalled. “We had some stocks but when they gave out we used to eat wild plants. We picked and cooked them. In every family there was hepatitis because of a lack of sugar. The water was dirty. People had fevers. Your joints and bones felt stiff. My middle daughter had brucellosis and there was no medication,” she said. In October 2013, in a sign of how bad things had become, the imam of Yarmouk’s largest mosque issued a fatwa that permitted people to eat cats, dogs and donkeys.

The relaxation of the siege in January last year was limited and insecure, she said. UNRWA’s food deliveries were regularly cut short by mortar explosions and sniper fire. No one was sure who began firing or why. She remembered one incident vividly: “It was March 23. I had gone to collect a food parcel and was on the way back when a mortar went off. Twenty-nine people were killed. My daughter’s husband had come to help carry the boxes. He was hit by shrapnel and cannot walk now. It’ll take him another three or four months to get better.”

For most of 2014, both sides were willing to allow some humanitarian supplies to enter the camp on an ad hoc basis, UN officials told me, even if the amount was far below what was needed.

Every day, UNRWA would check whether there had been exchanges of fire in Yarmouk. Sometimes the agency’s minivans never left the warehouse in central Damascus, on other occasions, delivery convoys were turned back. “We never say we’ve had access. All we say is that they’ve given us some opportunities to provide aid,” one UN official said.

UNRWA has not yet been able to enter the camp to conduct a needs assessment.

Since the graphic scenes of starving masses early last year, the agency developed a more orderly process, with lists of people who are allowed to cross the no man’s land at the edge of the camp once each month to collect food parcels.

Each parcel contains 5 kilograms of rice, 5 kilograms of sugar, 5 kilograms of lentils, 5 litres of oil, five kilograms of powdered milk, 1 kilogram of halva, one and a half kilograms of pasta and five 200g tins of luncheon meat. This is designed to feed a family of 8 people for 10 days.

In other parts of Syria where displaced Palestinians are living, UNRWA provides cash so that people can buy food for the rest of the month, but in Yarmouk that has not been not possible.

Providing medical supplies is sensitive, since the Syrian government fears they will go to wounded fighters.

Initially it only gave permission for rehydration salts and basic painkillers. UNRWA eventually managed to operate a mobile health clinic at the food distribution point, which provided basic treatments for communicable diseases and other infections, as well as conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. Tests conducted in 2014 on a random sample of patients found that 40% had typhoid.

Education has been dramatically affected by the siege.

According to residents inside the camp, all of Yarmouk’s 28 schools have been closed, and volunteer teachers hold informal classes in 10 “safe spaces”, including the basements of mosques.

The lack of electricity means children have to do their homework by generators if their parents can afford the fuel for them, or by candlelight. The spotlight that the UNRWA has tried to keep on Yarmouk may have acted as some restraint on government forces – the area has not been bombed as heavily as other rebel-held districts of Damascus. But this is only a crumb of comfort.

“Conditions are far worse than Gaza,” said one UN official. “Palestinians always had dignity, hope, resilience. Now after four years of war I see people giving up. They find it hard to accept there are no options”.

The latest attempt to reach a ceasefire and end the siege of Yarmouk was last June, when the armed groups inside the camp and some civilian representatives signed a pact with 13 representatives of the Assad government, which would have seen gunmen leave Yarmouk after the creation of a new security force to defend the camp. The deal was never implemented.

Nidal Bitari now lives in the United States, where he remains in daily contact with friends in Yarmouk by phone and Skype. He lobbied at UN headquarters in New York for western governments to support the June ceasefire agreement, and blames them, along with supporters of Jabhat al Nusra, for letting the deal collapse.

“I suppose this initiative went against the wishes of France, UK and USA,” he said, “as their policy is based on supporting the interim government in exile, and they believe such truces give legitimacy to the regime.”

Talal Alyan, a Palestinian-American writer and researcher who lives in the US, recently wrote that Jabhat al Nusra controls 60% of the camp, and suggested the group had attempted to ban singing and force women to wear the veil.

Since our conversation, Reem Buqaee has managed to go home to Yarmouk, even though it meant returning to siege conditions. When no response came from the Palestinian authorities who shared control of the camp’s northern entrance with regime forces, she decided to use an unofficial channel.

A friend in the air force, one of the pillars of Assad’s regime, persuaded his commander to contact officers at government checkpoints in Beit Sahem, a village to the south of Yarmouk, to let them cross the frontline. Inside the camp, the water supply has still not returned, 6 months after pipes were damaged by fighting in September 2014. This has forced the residents to rely on untreated groundwater and a single well.

To add to the horror of the siege, the shadow of ISIS has fallen across Yarmouk. When the group announced the establishment of a caliphate last year, Bitari said, some Jabhat al Nusra fighters in Yarmouk switched their allegiance and threatened to kill anyone who supported the ceasefire agreement.

Isis is not yet in Yarmouk in full force, according to Bitari, but it was in nearby suburbs and had threatened to enter the camp at any time. (It did and has occupied a large portion of the camp)

Nidal Bitari is gloomy in exile. When it became clear the US was about to strike targets in Syria in September, he coordinated an appeal from activists back home.

They feared Obama would attack Isis positions in Yarmouk. “Here in Washington I’m surrounded by people from the Syrian National Coalition [the western-supported opposition] who tell me they want Obama to bomb Damascus. It would be a political more than a military action, aimed at warning Assad that the opposition has powerful friends. I told them it would cause a high number of casualties and there’s no way for Palestinians in Yarmouk to flee,” he said.

The appeal condemned the Syrian government for mounting a brutal siege but said any coalition air strike on Damascus would create an even greater humanitarian disaster.

In Bitari view the reimposition of a total siege since early December was a tactic by the Assad regime to drive Yarmouk’s people to despair and have them press the armed groups to accept a truce under the regime’s conditions. It would amount to a surrender like those the government achieved in the city of Homs and the Damascus suburb of Muadhamiya last year.

The armed groups would have to give up their weapons and submit to interrogation, with the risk of torture or execution.

In spite of the siege, Bitari feels that in one way Syria’s Palestinians who have escaped abroad may be worse off than those left behind.

“We heard much about the Nakba from our parents and grandparents, about their suffering when forced to leave their country, at having lost everything,” he wrote. “They worked hard to build their lives in Syria, and what they built is destroyed. And now we, the third generation, are experiencing this also, of starting from zero in other countries.”

  • This article was amended on 11 March 2015. It mistakenly described Talal Alyan as a former Yarmouk resident. He is a Palestinian-American writer and researcher who lives in the US. This has been corrected.
Najat Rizk  shared  Jamil Mroue link  on FB this April 9, 2015

This is criminal and nothing else.

The long read: Yarmouk, near the centre of Damascus, prospered as a safe haven for Palestinians.
Under siege, it is now a prison for its remaining residents….
theguardian.com|By Jonathan Steele

 

 

What refugees think of aid agencies?

LONDON, 5 March 2015 (IRIN) – Aid agencies are partial, unaccountable and potentially corrupt, and they fail to meet refugees’ most pressing needs.

These are just some of the criticisms emerging from a series of new focus groups with refugees and others who receive aid across the Middle East.

What refugees really think of aid agencies?

By Louise Redvers

Concerns included a lack of consultation about people’s needs, a failure to protect the most vulnerable, confusion over which agency was responsible for what, duplicated aid, as well as instances where help was perceived to be withheld or prioritised due to political or religious affiliation.

Photo: WHSA refugee in Lebanon describing her feelings towards aid agencies. – See more at: http://www.irinnews.org//report/101197/what-refugees-really-think-of-aid-agencies#.VQGwIULfK-L

“When you decide to help someone you have to remove all their affiliations and simply treat them as humans,” noted one female youth leader from Palestine.

“Humanitarian organisations need to provide information about their services because it is not humane to respond to refugee information needs with ‘I don’t know’,” added a female refugee in Yemen.

The interviews conducted in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen were commissioned by the organisers of the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), ahead of this week’s consultation for the Middle East and North Africa, held in the Dead Sea.

Reality Check

“Some of the comments were quite damning and I think it is a bit of a reality check for the humanitarian system,” said Reza Kasraï, Middle East and North African regional representative for the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), an NGO consortium, which conducted the focus groups in partnership with the WHS Secretariat.

Details of the interviews – conducted between November 2014 and February 2015, with a mix of men, women, youth and community leaders – have been compiled in a report shared with aid organisations, donors and government officials attending the WHS meeting in Jordan and online.

The observations make uncomfortable reading for both national and international aid agencies operating in a region where large communities of Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees, as well as other migrants, are living in a mix of camp and community settings.

When you decide to help someone you have to remove all their affiliations and simply treat them as humans

For a UN document, the stakeholder report is unusually candid, but its tone reflects ongoing efforts by the WHS secretariat to promote dialogue around sensitive issues rarely openly discussed within the sector.

Using a 10-point scale (where 10=high and 1=low), interviewees gave an average rating of 3 when asked if they thought aid groups were meeting their priority needs.

Asked if they were treated with respect and dignity, respondents across the 5 countries gave an average ranking of 3.5 out of 10; and the question of whether aid organisations considered refugees’ opinions received an average score of 2.5 out of 10.

Nadine Elshokeiry, a humanitarian affairs officer with the UN’s Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa (ROMENA) and who assisted with the focus groups, told IRIN: “It is clear that people do not feel they are getting as much support as they want and that many organisations are not doing enough to communicate with [the] affected populations they are trying to help.”

But she added: “While there were some strong comments, we feel this is a very constructive criticism and it gives us something very useful to work on in terms of how the humanitarian system can improve its response.”

In addition to the 35-page WHS report, IRIN has also been shown country-specific reports on the focus groups in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and Lebanon.

Accountability

Elshokeiry said the focus groups had shown that many people didn’t distinguish between different aid organisations – seeing them all as part of one wider system.

Because there is not always clear information about who is doing what or where aid is coming from, especially where local partners or intermediaries are involved, I think this creates a perception of a lack of accountability,” she said, noting a need for agencies to do more to communicate with the people they are trying to help.

“We feel this is a very constructive criticism”

In OPT, accountability – or a perceived lack thereof – was a major complaint among those interviewed. Many accused international and national aid agencies of favoritism towards certain groups of people and expressed concerns about aid being subject to corruption.

The participants’ biggest issue was the lack of accountability and transparency of humanitarian organisations,” the write-up noted. “… This also raises participants’ suspicions of the possibility of corruption in humanitarian aid.”

And it adds: “… There is a perception that project budgets are not spent appropriately, but are spent on high-visibility activities, such as repainting building walls and paying for media coverage.

In Gaza, distributions are said to happen in schools or other places that will be covered by the international media.”

Although few aid organisations were identified by name, participants in the Palestinian focus group, study seen by IRIN, directly criticised UNRWA – the UN agency for Palestine refugees.

The criticisms included:

1. A vague mandate;

2. refusal to delegate responsibilities to other organisations;

3. funding shortages that have affected quantity and quality of the services in schools and primary health clinics in camps; and

4.  cumbersome bureaucratic procedures and slow decision-making processes.

“Funding shouldn’t be based on the donors’ agenda but serve the beneficiaries”

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness acknowledged agency services have been subject to “cutting and erosion” but he told IRIN: “Going back to the 1950s, UNRWA has had a significant budget deficit year on year and this has had an impact on everything: buildings and infrastructure are crumbling, computer services taken for granted in most organisations are just not there, the list goes on.”

And he added: “Alongside the austerity brought on by the funding gap, our major departments have undergone root and branch reform which has led to efficiencies and this much is widely acknowledged by our donors.”

Who is the priority?

The perception that humanitarian organisations prioritised donors’ views over those of affected populations was a recurring theme in several of the focus groups.

“Given the fact that Palestine is under occupation and there are chronic problems in Gaza, donors and organisations are still unable to work on sustainable projects and all the solutions are shortterm with no longterm impact,” noted one Palestinian youth from the West Bank. “The funding shouldn’t be based on the donors’ agenda but serve the beneficiaries,” he said.

In Lebanon, some interviewees complained about uneven or duplicated aid distributions, blaming a lack of co-ordination between agencies. They called for more income-generating opportunities to break the cycle of dependency on handouts.

“Significant corruption and nepotism existed in the distribution of aid,” the report said, with interviewees referring to “accounts of incidents of favoritism within UN agencies for certain ‘connected’ families, especially with regards to resettlement assistance”.

And in Yemen, Eritrean refugees recounted experiences of feeling humiliated and lacking dignity due to humanitarian organisations’ perceived preferential treatment of the Somali refugees compared to other refugees from Arab countries.

The main report noted that “experiences of humanitarian co-ordination are largely bleak”; refugees complained about having to pro-actively seek out different organisations and re-tell their stories due to limited referral systems between aid groups.

“People need to be given a choice over what kind of humanitarian assistance they receive”

Choice and Dignity

Lack of choice about what specific aid people received was another theme.

“Affected people consulted in the region seldom felt that their priority needs were met,” the main report said. “This finding was supported by stakeholders who highlighted how affected people at times sell the in-kind assistance they received and use the funds to purchase other goods or services.

“To truly put people’s needs at the heart of humanitarian action, stakeholders argued that people need to be given a choice over what kind of humanitarian assistance they receive,” it added.

Dana Sleiman, spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Lebanon – one of the leading UN agencies helping Syrian refugees – told IRIN: “We are aware of the report and welcome any additions to the discussions on how to further improve humanitarian assistance here in Lebanon.

“UNHCR staff, the Lebanese government and our partners are in constant contact with refugees throughout the country, listening to their concerns and providing a massive range of support as most refugees arrive here having lost everything.”

ICVA’s Kasraï said the WHS presented a unique opportunity to carry out a wider systemic consultation, rather than looking at individual agencies or contexts.

“It is quite unusual to get this sort of feedback ,” he said. “I think sometimes humanitarian organisations, including donors, UN agencies and NGOs, can get into a bit of a bubble, using their own language and talking amongst themselves in a jargon that isn’t always understood by the people they are trying to help.”

lr/jd/ha

*This article was updated on 7 March 2015 to remove a quote suggesting that this was the first time the WHS had conducted focus group interviews ahead of a regional consultation.

– See more at: http://www.irinnews.org//report/101197/what-refugees-really-think-of-aid-agencies#.VQGwIULfK-L

The rise and fall of Default Man 

Paddle your canoe up the River Thames and you will come round the bend and see a forest of huge totems jutting into the sky.

Great shiny monoliths in various phallic shapes, they are the wondrous cultural artifacts of a remarkable tribe.

We all know someone from this powerful tribe but we very rarely, if ever, ascribe their power to the fact that they have a particular tribal identity.

Grayson Perry in The rise and fall of Default Man, October 8, 2014

How did the straight, white, middle-class Default Man take control of our society – and how can he be dethroned?

I think this tribe, a small minority of our native population, needs closer examination. In the UK, its members probably make up about 10% of the population (see infographic below); globally, probably less than 1 per cent.

In a phrase used more often in association with Operation Yewtree, they are among us and hide in plain sight.

They dominate the upper echelons of our society, imposing, unconsciously or otherwise, their values and preferences on the rest of the population.

With their colourful textile phallus hanging round their necks, they make up an overwhelming majority in government, in boardrooms and also in the media.

They are, of course, white, middle-class, heterosexual men, usually middle-aged.

And every component of that description has historically played a part in making this tribe a group that punches far, far above its weight.

I have struggled to find a name for this identity that will trip off the tongue, or that doesn’t clutter the page with unpronounceable acronyms such as WMCMAHM.

“The White Blob” was a strong contender but in the end I opted to call him Default Man.

I like the word “default”, for not only does it mean “the result of not making an active choice”, but two of its synonyms are “failure to pay” and “evasion”, which seems incredibly appropriate, considering the group I wish to talk about.

Today, in politically correct 21st-century Britain, you might think things would have changed but somehow the Great White Male has thrived and continues to colonise the high-status, high-earning, high-power roles

(93% of executive directors in the UK are white men; 77% of parliament is male).

The Great White Male’s combination of good education, manners, charm, confidence and sexual attractiveness (or “money”, as I like to call it) means he has a strong grip on the keys to power.

Of course, the main reason he has those qualities in the first place is what he is, not what he has achieved.

John Scalzi, in his blog Whatever, thought that being a straight white male was like playing the computer game called Life with the difficulty setting on “Easy”. If you are a Default Man you look like power.

I must confess that I qualify in many ways to be a Default Man myself but I feel that by coming from a working-class background and being an artist and a transvestite, I have enough cultural distance from the towers of power. I have space to turn round and get a fairly good look at the edifice.

In the course of making my documentary series about identity, Who Are You?, for Channel 4, the identity I found hardest to talk about, the most elusive, was Default Man’s.

Somehow, his world-view, his take on society, now so overlaps with the dominant narrative that it is like a Death Star hiding behind the moon.

We cannot unpick his thoughts and feelings from the “proper, right-thinking” attitudes of our society. It is like in the past, when people who spoke in cut-glass, RP, BBC tones would insist they did not have an accent, only northerners and poor people had one of those.

We live and breathe in a Default Male world: no wonder he succeeds, for much of our society operates on his terms.

Chris Huhne (60, Westminster, PPE Mag­dalen, self-destructively heterosexual), the Default Man we chose to interview for our series, pooh-poohed any suggestion when asked if he benefited from membership or if he represented this group.

Lone Default Man will never admit to, or be fully aware of, the tribal advantages of his identity. They are, naturally, full subscribers to that glorious capitalist project, they are individuals!

This adherence to being individuals is the nub of the matter. Being “individual” means that if they achieve something good, it is down to their own efforts.

They got the job because they are brilliant, not because they are a Default Man, and they are also presumed more competent by other Default Men. If they do something bad it is also down to the individual and not to do with their gender, race or class. If a Default Man commits a crime it is not because fraud or sexual harassment, say, are endemic in his tribe (coughs), it is because he is a wrong ’un.

If a Default Man gets emotional it is because he is a “passionate” individual, whereas if he were a woman it would often be blamed on her sex.

When we talk of identity, we often think of groups such as black Muslim lesbians in wheelchairs. This is because identity only seems to become an issue when it is challenged or under threat. Our classic Default Man is rarely under existential threat; consequently, his identity remains unexamined. It ambles along blithely, never having to stand up for its rights or to defend its homeland.

When talking about identity groups, the word “community” often crops up. The working class, gay people, black people or Muslims are always represented by a “community leader”.

We rarely, if ever, hear of the white middle-class community. “Communities” are defined in the eye of Default Man. Community seems to be a euphemism for the vulnerable lower orders. Community is “other”.

Communities usually seem to be embattled, separate from society. “Society” is what Default Man belongs to.

In news stories such as the alleged “Trojan Horse” plot in Birmingham schools and the recent child-abuse scandal in Rotherham, the central involvement of an ethnic or faith “community” skews the attitudes of police, social services and the media.

The Muslim or Pakistani heritage of those accused becomes the focus. I’m not saying that faith and ethnic groups don’t have their particular problems but the recipe for such trouble is made up of more than one spicy, foreign ingredient. I would say it involves more than a few handfuls of common-or-garden education/class issues, poor mental health and, of course, the essential ingredient in nearly all nasty or violent problems, men.

Yeah, men – bit like them Default Men but without suits on.

In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, published in 1975, Laura Mulvey coined the term “the male gaze”. She was writing about how the gaze of the movie camera reflected the heterosexual male viewpoint of the directors (a viewpoint very much still with us, considering that only 9% of the top 250 Hollywood films in 2012 were directed by women and only 2 per cent of the cinematographers were female).

The Default Male gaze does not just dominate cinema, it looks down on society like the eye on Sauron’s tower in The Lord of the Rings.

Every other identity group is “othered” by it. It is the gaze of the expensively nondescript corporate leader watching consumers adorn themselves with his company’s products the better to get his attention.

Default Man feels he is the reference point from which all other values and cultures are judged. Default Man is the zero longitude of identities.

He has forged a society very much in his own image, to the point where now much of what other groups think and feel is the same. They take on the attitudes of Default Man because they are the attitudes of our elders, our education, our government, our media.

If Default Men approve of something it must be good, and if they disapprove it must be bad, so people end up hating themselves, because their internalised Default Man is berating them for being female, gay, black, silly or wild.

I often hear women approvingly describe themselves or other women as feisty.

Feisty, I feel, has sexist implications, as if standing up for yourself was exceptional in a woman. It sounds like a word that a raffish Lothario would use about a difficult conquest.

I once gave a talk on kinky sex and during the questions afterwards a gay woman floated an interesting thought: “Is the legalising of gay marriage an attempt to neutralise the otherness of homosexuals?” she asked. Was the subversive alternative being neutered by allowing gays to marry and ape a hetero lifestyle?

Many gay people might have enjoyed their dangerous outsider status. Had Default Man implanted a desire to be just like him?

Is the fact that we think like Default Man the reason why a black female Doctor Who has not happened, that it might seem “wrong” or clunky? In my experience, when I go to the doctor I am more likely to see a non-white woman than a Default Man.

It is difficult to tweezer out the effect of Default Man on our culture, so ingrained is it after centuries of their rules. A friend was once on a flight from Egypt.

As it came in to land at Heathrow he looked down at the rows of mock-Tudor stockbroker-belt houses in west London. Pointing them out, he said to the Egyptian man sitting next to him: “Oh well, back to boring old England.” The Egyptian replied, “Ah, but to me this is very exotic.” And he was right.

To much of the world the Default Englishman is a funny foreign folk icon, with his bowler hat, his Savile Row suit and Hugh Grant accent, living like Reggie Perrin in one of those polite suburban semis. All the same, his tribal costume and rituals have probably clothed and informed the global power elite more than any other culture. Leaders wear his clothes, talk his language and subscribe to some version of his model of how society “should be”.

When I was at art college in the late Seventies/early Eighties, one of the slogans the feminists used was: “Objectivity is Male Subjectivity.”

This brilliantly encapsulates how male power nestles in our very language, exerting influence at the most fundamental level. Men, especially Default Men, have put forward their biased, highly emotional views as somehow “rational”, more considered, more “calm down, dear”.

Women and “exotic” minorities are framed as “passionate” or “emotional” as if they, the Default Men, had this unique ability to somehow look round the side of that most interior lens, the lens that is always distorted by our feelings.

Default Man somehow had a dispassionate, empirical, objective vision of the world as a birthright, and everyone else was at the mercy of turbulent, uncontrolled feelings. That, of course, explained why the “others” often held views that were at such odds with their supposedly cool, analytic vision of the world.

Recently, footage of the UN spokesman Chris Gunness breaking down in tears as he spoke of the horrors occurring in Gaza went viral. It was newsworthy because reporters and such spokespeople are supposed to be dispassionate and impartial. To show such feelings was to be “unprofessional”. And lo! The inherited mental health issues of Default Man are cast as a necessity for serious employment.

I think Default Man should be made aware of the costs and increasing obsolescence of this trait, celebrated as “a stiff upper lip”. This habit of denying, recasting or suppressing emotion may give him the veneer of “professionalism” but, as David Hume put it: “Reason is a slave of the passions.”

To be unaware of or unwilling to examine feelings means those feelings have free rein to influence behaviour unconsciously. Unchecked, they can motivate Default Man covertly, unacknowledged, often wreaking havoc.

Even if rooted in long-past events in the deep unconscious, these emotions still fester, churning in the dark at the bottom of the well. Who knows what unconscious, screwed-up “personal journeys” are being played out on the nation by emotionally illiterate Default Men?

Being male and middle class and being from a generation that still valued the stiff upper lip means our Default Man is an ideal candidate for low emotional awareness. He sits in a gender/ class/age nexus marked “Unexploded Emotional Time Bomb”.

These people have been in charge of our world for a long time.

Things may be changing.

****

Women are often stereotyped as the emotional ones, and men as rational. But, after the 2008 crash, the picture looked different, as Hanna Rosin wrote in an article in the Atlantic titled “The End of Men”:

Researchers have started looking into the relationship between testosterone and excessive risk, and wondering if groups of men, in some basic hormonal way, spur each other to make reckless decisions. The picture emerging is a mirror image of the traditional gender map: men and markets on the side of the irrational and overemotional, and women on the side of the cool and level-headed.

Over the centuries, empirical, clear thinking has become branded with the image of Default Men. They were the ones granted the opportunity, the education, the leisure, the power to put their thoughts out into the world. In people’s minds, what do professors look like? What do judges look like? What do leaders look like? The very aesthetic of seriousness has been monopolised by Default Man. Practically every person on the globe who wants to be taken seriously in politics, business and the media dresses up in some way like a Default Man, in a grey, western, two-piece business suit. Not for nothing is it referred to as “power dressing”. We’ve all seen those photo ops of world leaders: colour and pattern shriek out as anachronistic. Consequently, many women have adopted this armour of the unremarkable. Angela Merkel, the most powerful woman in the world, wears a predictable unfussy, feminised version of the male look. Hillary Clinton has adopted a similar style. Some businesswomen describe this need to tone down their feminine appearance as “taking on the third gender”.

Peter Jones on Dragons’ Den was once referred to as “eccentric” for wearing brightly coloured stripy socks. So rigid is the Default Man look that men’s suit fashions pivot on tiny changes of detail at a glacial pace. US politicians wear such a narrow version of the Default Man look that you rarely see one wearing a tie that is not plain or striped.

Suits you, sir: Grayson Perry as Default Man.
Photo: Kalpesh Lathigra/New Statesman

One tactic that men use to disguise their subjectively restricted clothing choices is the justification of spurious function.

As if they need a watch that splits lap times and works 300 feet underwater, or a Himalayan mountaineer’s jacket for a walk in the park. The rufty-tufty army/hunter camouflage pattern is now to boys as pink is to girls. Curiously, I think the real function of the sober business suit is not to look smart but as camouflage.

A person in a grey suit is invisible, in the way burglars often wear hi-vis jackets to pass as unremarkable “workmen”.

The business suit is the uniform of those who do the looking, the appraising. It rebuffs comment by its sheer ubiquity. Many office workers loathe dress-down Fridays because they can no longer hide behind a suit. They might have to expose something of their messy selves through their “casual” clothes. Modern, over-professionalised politicians, having spent too long in the besuited tribal compound, find casual dress very difficult to get right convincingly.

David Cameron, while ruining Converse basketball shoes for the rest of us, never seemed to me as if he belonged in a pair.

When I am out and about in an eye-catching frock, men often remark to me, “Oh, I wish I could dress like you and did not have to wear a boring suit.” Have to!

The male role is heavily policed from birth, by parents, peers and bosses. Politicians in particular are harshly kept in line by a media that seems to uphold more bizarrely rigid standards of conformity than those held by any citizen.

Each component of the Default Male role – his gender, his class, his age and his sexuality – confines him to an ever narrower set of behaviours, until riding a bicycle or growing a beard, having messy hair or enjoying a pint are seen as ker-azy eccentricity.

The fashionable members’ club Shoreditch House, the kind of place where “creatives” with two iPhones and three bicycles hang out, has a “No Suits” rule. How much of this is a pseudo-rebellious pose and how much is in recognition of the pernicious effect of the overgrown schoolboy’s uniform, I do not know.

I dwell on the suit because I feel it exemplifies how the upholders of Default Male values hide in plain sight. Imagine if, by democratic decree, the business suit was banned, like certain items of Islamic dress have been banned in some countries. Default Men would flounder and complain that they were not being treated with “respect”.

The most pervasive aspect of the Default Man identity is that it masquerades very efficiently as “normal” – and “normal”, along with “natural”, is a dangerous word, often at the root of hateful prejudice.

As Sherrie Bourg Carter, author of High-Octane Women, writes:

Women in today’s workforce . . . are experiencing a much more camouflaged foe – second-generation gender biases . . . “work cultures and practices that appear neutral and natural on their face”, yet they reflect masculine values and life situations of men.

Personally, working in the arts, I do not often encounter Default Man en masse, but when I do it is a shock. I occasionally get invited to formal dinners in the City of London and on arrival, I am met, in my lurid cocktail dress, with a sea of dinner jackets; perhaps harshly, my expectations of a satisfying conversation drop. I feel rude mentioning the black-clad elephant in the room. I sense that I am the anthropologist allowed in to the tribal ritual.

Of course, this weird minority, these curiously dominant white males, are anything but normal. “Normal,” as Carl Jung said, “is the ideal aim for the unsuccessful.” They like to keep their abnormal power low-key: the higher the power, the duller the suit and tie, a Mercedes rather than a Rolls, just another old man chatting casually to prime ministers at the wedding of a tabloid editor.

Revolution is happening. I am loath to use the R word because bearded young men usually characterise it as sudden and violent. But that is just another unhelpful cliché.

I feel real revolutions happen thoughtfully in peacetime. A move away from the dominance of Default Man is happening, but way too slowly.

Such changes in society seem to happen at a pace set by incremental shifts in the animal spirits of the population. I have heard many of the “rational” (ie, male) arguments against quotas and positive discrimination but I feel it is a necessary fudge to enable just change to happen in the foreseeable future. At the present rate of change it will take more than a hundred years before the UK parliament is 50 per cent female.

The outcry against positive discrimination is the wail of someone who is having their privilege taken away. For talented black, female and working-class people to take their just place in the limited seats of power, some of those Default Men are going to have to give up their seats.

Perhaps Default Man needs to step down from some of his most celebrated roles. I’d happily watch a gay black James Bond and an all-female Top Gear, QI or Have I Got News for You.

Jeremy Paxman should have been replaced by a woman on Newsnight. More importantly, we need a quota of MPs who (shock) have not been to university but have worked on the shop floor of key industries; have had life experiences that reflect their constituents’; who actually represent the country rather than just a narrow idea of what a politician looks like.

The ridiculousness of objections to quotas would become clear if you were to suggest that, instead of calling it affirmative action, we adopted “Proportionate Default Man Quotas” for government and business. We are wasting talent. Women make up a majority of graduates in such relevant fields as law.

Default Man seems to be the embodiment of George Bernard Shaw’s unreasonable man: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to make the world adapt to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Default Man’s days may be numbered; a lot of his habits are seen at best as old-fashioned or quaint and at worst as redundant, dangerous or criminal. He carries a raft of unhelpful habits and attitudes gifted to him from history – adrenalin addiction, a need for certainty, snobbery, emotional constipation and an overdeveloped sense of entitlement – which have often proved disastrous for society and can also stop poor Default Man from leading a fulfilling life.

Earlier this year, at the Being A Man festival at the Southbank Centre in London, I gave a talk on masculinity called: “Men, Sit Down for your Rights!”. A jokey title, yes, but one making a serious point: that perhaps, if men were to loosen their grip on power, there might be some benefits for them.

The straitjacket of the Default Man identity is not necessarily one happily donned by all members of the tribe: many struggle with the bad fit of being leader, provider, status hunter, sexual predator, respectable and dignified symbol of straight achievement. Maybe the “invisible weightless backpack” that the US feminist Peggy McIntosh uses to describe white privilege, full of “special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks”, does weigh rather a lot after all.

Sieges in Syria: Babies starving to death

Israa al-Masri was still a toddler when she lost her battle to cling to life. But the image of her face, pictured just minutes before she finally succumbed to starvation, is becoming the symbol of a wider nightmare.

For Israa, tongue swollen, wearing a chunky sweater and woolen hat that seem more substantial than she is, was just one of thousands of Palestinian refugees trapped and starving in Yarmouk refugee camp, Damascus.

FERNANDE VAN TETS published in The Independent this Jan. 16, 2014:

Innocent, starving, close to death: One victim of the siege that shames Syria

 
Months of encirclement by the Syrian army has cut off the 18,000 people in Damascus’s Yarmouk refugee camp from supplies and medical aid, reducing them to subsisting on a diet of animal food, water with salt and instant noodles and leaves

Beirut: Once Syria’s largest Palestinian camp, Yarmouk has been under siege for almost a year. Most of its 160,000 population fled following violent clashes in December 2012, but at least 18,000 have remained, and months of encirclement by the Syrian army, cut off from supplies and medical aid, have reduced them to subsisting on a diet of animal food, water with salt and and leaves.

Women are shot at by snipers as they try to gather plants to feed their children. Israa is one of at least 50 to have died from hunger-related causes since October.

“The people are now eating grass and have started to eat cat and dog meat as a routine meal,” says Qais Saed, 26, whose last meal was 3 days ago and consisted of water with some spices. He cannot recall the last time he was not hungry.

Pro-Assad Palestinian factions blame the presence of 2,500 rebel fighters in the camp for the length of the siege.

Sheikh Mohamed Abu Khair, the imam of the camp’s Palestine mosque, sanctioned the eating of cats, donkeys and dogs in a fatwa in October after four people had died from malnutrition. That number has now risen to at least 50, says the Action Group for Palestine.

According to our figures somebody is dying daily now,” says Neil Sammonds, Syria researcher at Amnesty International.

A funeral for a resident of Yarmouk

A funeral for a resident of Yarmouk (AP)

A local nurse told the organisation that since mid-November last year, when government forces took control of an area near the camp, several civilians, mainly women, have been killed by snipers while foraging for food in nearby fields.

“Every day we receive around 4 people who were shot by snipers while they were picking plants in the fields. The women say they prefer to risk their own lives to spare the children.

“On one occasion, we received a teenager, probably aged 16 or 17, who was shot dead. His father started talking to him and said: ‘You died for the sake of bringing hibiscus leaves for your siblings.’ It was heartbreaking,” she said.

Residents have recounted a scene of devastation and desperation inside the camp, which was originally built in 1957 to house thousands of Palestinians displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Over time it turned into a bustling residential area, with Syrian as well as Palestinian inhabitants. But today it’s a far cry from the packed restaurants of downtown Damascus, just five miles away.

“There are no more people in Yarmouk, only skeletons with yellow skin,” Umm Hassan, a 27-year-old resident and the mother of two toddlers, told the Associated Press on Monday.

Videos uploaded to YouTube show angry and desperate residents venting their frustration. “We are tired; there is no food,” says one woman. Another holds up a bag full of leaves which is the only food she has to feed her four children.

“Residents including infants and children are subsisting for long periods on diets of stale vegetables, herbs, powdered tomato paste, animal feed and cooking spices dissolved in water,” says Chris Gunness, spokesperson for the UN Palestinian agency UNRWA.

People are so desperate that some are reportedly shedding family members in order to conserve resources. “One father threw his daughter on the street; we found the baby in the street,” says Abu Muhamed, 24 and an activist, who took the child to hospital. “People feel that psychologically they can do nothing.”

The emaciated body of Awad al-Saidi, who, according to locals, died of hunger and sickness there

The emaciated body of Awad al-Saidi, who, according to locals, died of hunger and sickness there (AP)

Reports of robbery, primarily of food, are rife. Contacting people inside the camp is difficult, as sustained electricity cuts have been plaguing the camp for nine months. There is also little water or heating.

“Residents are having to rely on going out on to terraces and burning furniture and branches to warm themselves in the open because wood fires cannot be resorted to indoors. There is a very infrequent supply of tap water – reportedly available for four hours only at intervals of three days,” says Mr Gunness.

The lack of electricity in the camp is also affecting the single hospital that is still in operation, which has in addition run out of supplies. The absence of medical care has led to several women dying in childbirth.

As a result of severe malnutrition, residents, especially children, are now affected by diseases such as anaemia, rickets, and kwashiorkor [a disease of malnutrition related to protein deficiency]. The camp has also not been able to receive vaccines, most notably for polio. That disease has returned to Syria after having been eradicated more than a decade ago.

An UNRWA aid convoy carrying 10,000 polio vaccines and food for 6,000 people was forced to turn back as it tried to enter the camp on Monday, after its Syrian army security detail was repeatedly shot at.

Despite the north area of the camp being easier to enter – as it is held by the regime – the Syrian government withheld permission, citing security fears. This forced the convoy to use the southern entrance and pass through some 10 miles of contested territory.

Residents suspect that opposition fighters viewed the presence of regime troops, including a bulldozer clearing the road for the 6-truck convoy, as a provocation. On Monday, the Foreign Secretary William Hague said the deliberate obstruction of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people is “utterly unacceptable”.

The Foreign Office added that it will be pushing for the “lifting of sieges and access for humanitarian organisations and the immediate end to attacks on civilian areas and medical facilities and respect for international humanitarian law”.

Adding to Yarmouk’s misery, at least four  people were killed in a barrel bomb attack. “The people were saying, if they can’t enter with food, maybe they can send it by plane. But what [Assad] sent was a bomb,” said Qais Saed.

Activists say around 1,000 people descended on the northern gate following the attack, but were stopped by sniper fire, in which one person died. The Independent couldn’t independently verify this claim.

More than 100,000 people have died in Syria’s bitter civil war since 2011 and millions more have fled the country.

The Syrian government is due to sit down with the opposition in Geneva on 22 January  in what would be the first face-to-face peace talks between the two sides. Many have questioned how effective the talks will be, however, with many opposition groups boycotting them.

The agreement to allow the aid convoys to enter the areas was announced in Paris by the US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who are working to broker an end to the bloody civil war.

There is no sign, however, that help is close to arriving in Yarmouk.

“Why don’t they kill us with chemicals? It would be done in a few minutes. It’s better than this way,” said Abu Muhamed, an activist.

Syria images of starvation: Verifying the truth

The factors preventing food and medical aid from getting into the Yarmouk camp also make it unusually hard to verify reports and pictures coming out of it.

The UN Relief and Works Agency has spoken of “profound civilian suffering in Yarmouk, with widespread incidence of malnutrition and the absence of medical care”, and numerous sources confirm the severity of conditions in the camp.

But the only visual evidence of these conditions comes from within the camp – from videos posted on YouTube to images posted on Twitter or, in some cases, photographs sent directly to journalists. The suppliers are usually activists.

The image of Israa al-Masri (above), and of a funeral for other victims of the siege, were provided to an Associated Press (AP) reporter by the activist group Palestinians of Syria.

The Independent spoke to the AP reporter, who said they had spoken to the person in the activist group who supplied a number of pictures from within Yarmouk camp, including the picture of Israa, whose image also appears in a separate YouTube video, which The Independent has seen.

Medical advice received by The Independent supports the view that the child identified as Israa does show signs of being “severely malnourished”.

Given the weight of evidence of extreme hunger within Yarmouk, there is no particular reason to doubt the authenticity of other images such as the one above, which is also taken from footage supplied by an activist group, and featured by Al Jazeera.

But despite rigorous checks, there is still no sure way of verifying them.


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

September 2020
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