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It’s summertime, and time for a new Gordon Ramsay project.  Chef and television presenter extrordinaire Ramsay has worked on several projects on both sides of the Atlantic in the last few years, but this time the workhorse may have bitten off more than he can chew.

The premise of the show follows in the footsteps of Jamie Oliver (Project 15 / school dinners) and James Martin (fixing hospital food accross the UK), where a known presenter enters a public institution and attempts to effect social change.  In this iteration, Ramsay has entered Her Majesty’s Prisons – specifically Brixton penitentiary – on order to improve work habits and attitudes of serial offenders.  The intention of the show is unclear – he is not there to improve the quality of food served to the prisoners (although despite his protestations against the relative comforts of teh prisoners, he does improve their food in the very first episode) – but rather he is there to develop certain skills in a number of men who appear to have never worked a full ‘straight’ week.

In the course of the first episode, Ramsay and the viewer are introduced to a number of figures, a man who has faced an incredible 79 convictions, an affable chap who in his own words spent a life ‘duckin’ and divin’ in order to get by, and a brigade of me so inured to the routines of the institution that even the slightest changes to their daily lives risks riot.

And therein lies the problem with the show.  Ramsay must present these men as no hopers, in order to triumphantly transform them into talented workers by the show’s end.  The series becomes critical of the individuals, rather than a system that has failed them.

My problem with Ramsay’s prison nightmares is not so much in his intentions which are ostensibly to improve the lives of men with very little motivation or life skills, but rather its insistence on their confinement being the inevitable outcome of their individual failings – failings which Ramsay will redress over the subsequent 12 weeks.  The men are not, the show implies, in jail becasue they live in a massively flawed society and economic system that privliges the wealthy (why isn’t Bob Diamond a fellow inmate?) but rather they, because of their massive flaws, are unable to exist in society.

Unfortunately, Ramsay repeatedly promotes the myth that prisoners somehow have it easy.  This is the same belief system that posits that those on benefits or anyone who is in part, or wholly subsidised by the public sector (including public sector employees) is somehow living in luxury and exploiting a flawed system.

Ramsay laments that prisoners are treating the prison like some sort of perverse hotel – with five choices of (appalling) meals each day, and 21 hours of lounging around in their rooms watching television and playing video games.  Ramsay questions how a criminal, with such soft treatment in confinement, could ever learn the skills of ‘hard graft.’

There is a rather odd idea being presented here, that prison is a more comfortable life than labouring in freedom.  This is surely perverse.  Either Ramsay is right, in which case, our economic system has failed us wherein there is less reward in honest labour than in doing porridge, in which case surely it is not the prisons that need fixing but rather society itself; or, conservative institutions such as The Telegraph, are misrepesenting prison as a soft option, in order to fulfil their own ideological agendas.

But surely there is something to Ramsay’s point.  Why aren’t prisoners labouring anymore?  Why are they in confinement for all but 4 hours in a day?  Why have prisons become simply a holding pen rather than reform penitentiaries?  Successive government cuts have resulted in an American style prison system in which convicted felons are simply housed, rather than provided with labour, skills and social training so that they can be returned to productive society.

In the last twenty years, the prison population of England and Wales has doubled.  Since 1993, prison populations have risen from 40 000 to surpass 80 000 in 2006.  It seems that jailing has become a new national pasttime.  We have begun incarcerating for crimes that in the past warranted fixed penalty fines.  We are filling jails at a much faster rate and all the while, arguing that those prisoners are having a lovely time of it.  Part of the problem is that there is big money in prisons.  Private, for profit groups have been earning contracts to administer prisons – there are currently 11 such prisons in the UK.  But regardless of the profit motive, it is substantially cheaper to provide prisoners with television and video games than it is to provide them with job training, labour skills, counselling and social skills.  Rather than rehabilitating prisoners, the new jails work hard to placate prisoners as cheaply as possible.  The result being that penitentiaries do whatever they can to keep the inmates quiet, rather than to prepare them for a return to society.  But there is also a profit motive in jailing.  Each prisoner represents a substantial amount of money – the cost of each prisoner per year has now reached £41 000, that represents £32 million per year of government money being placed into the hands of jail administrators.  With that amount of money, it seems prisoners could be given more to do than watch television.  With Ramsay’s training and providing inmates with both kitchen and business skills (inmates also learn to sell what they make), perhaps this is the start of a return to prison apprenticeships.

Occupying inmates is one thing – but with a captive audience, perhaps there are better uses of prison money and Ramsay seems to have hit a nerve.

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There has been a lot in the news lately about two major incidences of changing language of past texts.  The first is the Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn Nigger fiasco, and the second involves the music by Mark Knopfler’s Dire Straits song ‘Money for Nothing’ which has the word faggot.  Both works have been censored recently, and the offending term removed.  The argument is that we are in a post-racial world and such out dated pejoratives are discriminatory and offensive to contemporary sensibilities – they have no place in contemporary society.  A noble sentiment indeed, but what is the significance of removing these terms from historical works.  Aren’t we in danger of forgetting about our racist and homophobic past?  Don’t we have an obligation to keep these works, offensive terms and all, in our collective imaginations so that we do NOT forget that we have until very recently been hateful bigots who promoted ideologies of racial segregation, forced labour, beatings and rapes?  Our past was brutal and as shameful as it may be to us in our contemporary ‘post racial’ enlightenment, don’t we have an obligation to always remember that past, scars and all?  By removing the language of oppression from our historical texts, we are refashioning history into a new model wherein violent and brutal oppression did not exist.

The argument has been made that it is difficult to teach Huckleberry Finn, because it is hurtful for students to hear the word nigger.  That may be true, but language is potent, and sometimes hurtful but it can only be made less hurtful when appropriate measures are used to make amends for that hurtfulness.  And amends can only be made when one is aware of the potency of language.

However, the alternative – removing the offending word – also removes the requisite need for making amends.  Removing the hurtful term negates our society’s need to apologise for past transgressions.  But surely we have an obligation to continue to acknowledge and grieve the sins of our past.  Of course, this raises the question of ‘white man’s burden,’ and many argue that we’ve atoned for our sins and that we are in a post racial society.

Oh really?  Do we really no longer benefit from a past history of violence?  Is there no such thing as the inherited benefits of whiteness?  The truth is that families that benefited economically from slavery passed that wealth down through generations, and white society continues to out earn and out spend all other racial groups in America.  It is not coincidental that while only 15% of habitual drug users are black and 77% are white, African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested on drug charges.  It is not coincidental that it was predominantly the poorest of the black neighbourhoods in New Orleans that were most devastated by Hurricane Katrina and it is because of the simple fact that poor neighbourhoods are in more volatile areas, and tend to be over represented by racial minorities.

But to get back to Twain and Huck, what is the harm in changing a word in a novel?  Well – it changes the meaning of the text, for one thing.

To begin, it changes the unequal relationships between dominant white and subjugated black, to a capitalist inequality of rich ownership and poor subject.  It denies that race is even a contributing factor to the relationship, and instead changes it to one of haves and have-nots.  Of course Huck is a member of the poor whites, and even the poor whites expressed dominance over the blacks.  But changing ‘nigger’ to ‘slave’ changes the history of racial oppression in America to a history of economic inequality.

Secondly, in Huck Finn, Jim is Huck’s friend.  And yet, even their close, familial relationship is still tainted by the inherent prejudice in Huck’s language.  Even though he loves Jim, he can only refer to him in a pejorative way, always reminding the reader of the inherent racial barrier between them.  And while Huck is a child and Jim an adult, Huck’s language positions him above Jim – they cannot escape their racial identities and their racist society, even when alone on a raft.

But also, I’m a firm believer in the adage ‘those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.’  So we are obliged to remember what we have been capable of doing, lest we do it again.

But are we really in a post Racial world?  While our cartoonish images of Blackness have been diminished (although not removed entirely – reality television and rap music continue to predominantly present the spectacle of blacks as volatile, violent, sexually promiscuous and lazy), we have continued the use of the stereotype to construct other races.

 

The image of Kim Jhong-Il continues to use the archetypes of the Attack the Jap propaganda of the second world war.  ‘See the crazy tiny Asian man with the penchant for violence,’ the ads scream.

The image of the Islamic in contemporary media, is often reduced to a cartoonish scimitar wielding madman intent on violence.

 

Are these really the hallmarks of a post racial world?

We have a duty to remember the sins of our fathers and continue to address and keep striving to remedy our continued inequalities.  And yes, these terms are hurtful, they were hurtful when originally used.  But to remove the offending terms is to begin to erase our history of violence and is a means of promoting the lie that we are currently beyond prejudice.

 

So here we are, in our post racial world, and yet surrounded by the stereotyped image of otherness and so totally blind to these images as racially driven and promoting ideologies of hatred, fear and intollerance.  The lesson learned?  We can’t publish the word ‘nigger’ as it appeared in racist texts because it’s offensive, but to depict Arabs as crazed ‘rag heads’ is perfectly acceptable.

Post-racist my lily white ass.

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