Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Olivers/Mohammeds are coming!

Is it that time of year again already? Every year, a list of the most popular names given to newborn babies in England and Wales is published by the ONS. And, every year, certain people get upset about how many of them are called Mohammed. Let's compare and contrast some coverage of the latest report:

The Guardian: Oliver and Olivia top list of most popular babies' names
The BBC: Which baby names are the most popular?
The Press Association: Oliver 'most popular name for boy'
The Daily Mail: Mohammed is now the most popular name for baby boys ahead of Jack and Harry

So it's really up to your personal preferences which way you want to look at it. So why the different opinions? Why are some saying 'Oliver' and some 'Mohammed'? Well, 'Mohammed' is spelled in various different ways, with 14 recognised variations. The Mail likes to add all these together, and conclude that;
The name, when 12 different spellings were included, was given to 7,549 youngsters in 2009, official statistics revealed.

Oliver was the second most popular and it was given to 7,364 boys in England and Wales in 12 months.
The Mail is very insistent that this must be done. Last year, when Mohammed was third by their reckoning, the never knowingly understated Max Hastings railed against what he called a "shabby effort to conceal" the fact;
The ONS's hit parade of children's names, as released for publication, seemed designed to mask a simple truth which dismays millions of people, and which politicians and bureaucracies go to great lengths to bury: the Muslim population of Britain is growing extraordinarily fast.
He was so angry that the ONS felt moved to respond, saying they simply count by exact spellings.

As someone who occasionally gets a mild semi-on over statistics, this isn't actually totally unreasonable, allowing for variations like that. However, if you're going to apply statistical massaging like this, you have to be, y'know, fair about it. By 'fair', I mean simply applying the same rules to everyone. So, if you're going to add up all the various spellings of 'Mohammed', then you should do the same for other names in the list.

So, I went to the source at the ONS There I found the full list: 2009 Baby Names Statistics Boys (.xls file - 535kb). Here, we discover that there are 127 Oliviers, 104 Oliwiers, 9 Olis, 9 Oliwers, 4 Olivers' (plural!), 4 Ollivers, and most significantly, 511 Ollies (with an additional 16 Ollis). Even just adding Oliver and Ollie together, we get to 7,875, putting it back above Mohammed into first place again (and it becomes 8,148 if you add all the above variants). And that's before we get onto the more controversial stuff about how 'Jack' is historically a diminutive of the name 'John' (although of course many would argue that the former has now become a name in its own right).

Regardless, though, of whether the Mail's headline claim actually stands up (and for me it doesn't), it remains a somewhat deceptive statistic. The Mail wants you to infer that there's a scary amount of Muslims beings born, and Max Hastings' column from last year laboured this point quite a bit. Mohammed is simply, for cultural reasons, a very popular first name for Muslim boys, whereas 'British' names are a lot more varied (as, thankfully, are Polish ones, or else we'd probably be having an article about the explosion of Polish names in Britain). It has been that way for a long time, while British names have fluctuated far more with changing times and trends, and we don't tend to call our kids 'Jesus', though I am tempted to now. It's why there's no fuss made about the girls' names list; Muslim girls are not named in honour of the Prophet, therefore they're not dominated by a single name and derivations thereof. Thus the girls' list is full of good old British-sounding names like Emily and Sophie, instead of scary-sounding foreign ones.

It's just a meaningless excuse for more scaremongering. If you want to moan about the Islamification of Britain (and Christ knows the Mail wants to do that), then at least use accurate statistics about ethnicity and religious background, instead of using a cultural quirk in naming traditions as another excuse to get your Union Jack boxers in a twist.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Peter Hitchens: Not A Feminist

It's probably fair to say that Peter Hitchens and I don't see eye to eye on everything. Indeed, sometimes I wonder if my life would have been noticeably different if I'd made every decision based on a "what wouldn't Peter Hitchens do?" credo. I know what Peter Hitchens' worldview is, and it leaves me a bit cold. Well, a lot cold. Still, every now and then he expresses it in such a brutal, fundamentalist way that it catches me off guard.

In Hitchens' most recent piece, One benefit reform that would make us happier... and richer, he makes his position clear in the first paragraph.
There's only one lasting, simple welfare reform package this country needs. It goes like this. First, an announcement that nine months from today, all benefits of any kind for new unmarried mothers should cease.
It's so simple, so straightforward! Simply by making unmarried mothers poorer and increasing the hardship in their lives, we could change everything in Broken Britain! The conclusion of the next paragraph is where my jaw first collided with my knees:
Note the word 'new'. Existing victims of one of the stupidest policies in human history should continue to get their handouts and subsidised homes until their children are grown. It is not their fault, or their children's, that they were misled by weak and wicked politicians into this way of life.
Because, of course, it's always a choice, right? And what's more, these feckless, stupid single mums creaming state benefits are not just irresponsible, but so incredibly weak-minded that they were manipulated into choosing this way of life by...politicians. Presumably in these families (if indeed you can call them "families", these abnormal living arrangements), the mothers kneel before a framed picture of Jack Straw or Charles Clarke or Tony Blair and thank them for their blessing, their inspiration, their encouragement to choose a life raising a child on meagre state benefits.

He's not all bad, though, Hitchens, he's got a heart! I mean, look...
They should not be condemned or harassed. But this state-sponsored assault on marriage should stop.
Yeah, don't harass them, these silly women! After all they're too stupid to think for themselves, being victims of the Sixties liberals who have caused all these problems. No, the real problem, if you're Peter Hitchens, is that providing state support to lone parent families is nothing short of a "state-sponsored assault on marriage". Hitchens then goes on to generously throw these women another bone; if your husband got exploded in a war, or utterly abandoned you, you might still get benefits under a Hitchensian system! Hooray!

I've argued with Hitchens before on his blog. His view is very stark and simple, black and white. Briefly, he believes that all moves to make divorce easier (and also all moves to make gay marriage a possibility) are purely ideologically driven; not by the ideology of trying to be fair to people whose relationships fail, or to give people choice, but by a straightforward liberal Marxist hatred of the "traditional" family unit. The norm for Hitchens is, and should always be, husband and wife, married, living together with children. The Left, however, because they believe in state control, supposedly see the family as a threat, a unit that needs to be broken up if the state is to have the pliant subjects that socialism, he believes, requires. Hitchens is married, and his marriage is still intact. He seems to be unable to understand why it might be different for anyone else, and not that interested in finding out. And what's more, he's so convinced about the unquestionable correctness of his view, he believes that his norms should be enforced or at least encouraged financially by the state.

You can make your own judgements about his position. I look at things a little differently to him. I think marriage is a fine thing, it's not something I believe should be abolished or banned, despite being a card-carrying member of the PC Brigade. However, it's not the only way to exist. There are a huge range of reasons why a woman with a child might be single. Hitchens views any state benefit given to such a woman as a political endorsement of her foolish choice, and believes that we should reward marriage and penalise lone parenthood. I, on the other hand, view the benefits system as a safety net for those who need it. Lone parents are already at a disadvantage on a purely economic level. To punish them in order to make an ideological statement condemning their lifestyle seems irresponsible and judgemental to me, patronising even. Even if I accepted that all single mothers were foolish, feckless idiots, which I don't, I could never endorse a benefit-slashing policy that would see their blameless children suffer as a result.

And who's to blame for all this foolishness? Well, the BBC of course!
[The Tory party] has sold its soul – and the conservative people in this country – in return for the approval of the BBC and for the empty, pompous joys of office without power
Anyway, you might be thinking, "oh, leave old Hitch alone! He's just an old romantic who believes in the sanctity and purity of marriage and its high-minded ideals!". But, further down the column, he presents a view of marriage, and men in particular, that ranks among one of the darkest assessments of anything I've ever seen in a mainstream newspaper. Criticising the film "Made In Dagenham" for telling the story of a woman who let her husband look after their child for a bit while she fought for equal pay, Hitchens writes;
As she hurries off to yet another meeting, he points out to her that he's been a good spouse – not drinking or gambling away his wages, not raising his hand to her or the children.

She turns to him, rather snottily, and makes a Germaine Greer-type speech saying that she expects all these things by right, not as a privilege.
Feminists, eh? Where do they get off, treating the right not to be battered by their husbands as anything other than a privilege we men bestow upon them! He continues;
Men don't naturally behave in the responsible, considerate way that most working-class husbands still did in 1968. There was a deal, called marriage, which persuaded them do so.

But when that deal collapsed, not least when sex outside marriage became freely available, men began behaving like cavemen again, and women suffered from their own 'liberation'.
Did you get the message? Women have themselves to blame for this! By seeking, with the help of the Sixties liberals, rights like the ability to divorce, they have screwed men over in the deal we had. The deal was this; marry us, and we promise we probably won't beat the shit out of you after a night spending all the money on booze and greyhound racing. But hey, if women as a whole do anything to undermine the sanctity of marriage in the eyes of right-wing newspaper hacks, then indiviual women can't realistically expect us men not to revert to our woman-thumpin' caveman instincts, right?

It's an astonishing bit of woman-blaming, and a depressing conclusion to reach about marriage. I like marriage, or at least I did before I read this article. I thought it was a romantic statement; not one for everyone perhaps, but something people should be free to choose, a declaration of love and commitment. If Hitchens is right, and marriage is little more than a brief declaration of ceasefire, where men agree to temporarily stop behaving like animals in exchange for compliance from their woman, then maybe I'm not so hot on the idea after all.

I'll leave you with Hitchens' baffling conclusion;
The normal household needs two pay packets to survive, instead of one.
...and yet lone parents on benefits, Hitchens believes, should be forced to live on LESS than one pay packet, and penalised financially until they effectively have no choice to hook up with a man and depend on him. Cheerful fellow, Peter Hitchens.