Saturday, 31 May 2008

Fuel: A feminist issue?

No. No, it's not.

I post the full article below, in order to rip it to pieces.

May 31, 2008
Fuel is a feminist issue
Forget the hairy truckers. A car is a handbag, a creche and nappy bag all rolled into one
Sarah Vine

Fuel duty: it's a man thing, right? Hairy truckers, revved up on double egg and chips, squaring up to Gordon Brown in the grey London drizzle. Tanned Spanish fishermen, biceps glistening in the sunshine as they hand out fresh fish to baffled Madrileños. Grumpy Frenchmen blockading oil depots; Italians, Portuguese, even a few bus-driving Bulgarians: all the manliest men in Europe, furious at the rising cost of fuel, voicing their anger in a single, testosterone- charged roar of discontent.

They certainly make an impression, these tough guys with their big hands and their bigger beer bellies. But if you thought fuel excise duty was purely a male preoccupation, you would be sorely mistaken. In fact, fuel duty is as much a girl thing as the overhyped Sex and the City movie, or rooting for Strike in tonight's final of Britain's Got Talent. (For those of you not in the know, Strike are a pair of young martial arts teachers who do tremendously athletic things with their shirts off. Definitely worth a look, actually, if you've nothing better to do on a Saturday night.)

Right. Come on, folks, concentrate! This is serious journalism!

The image of the motor car as a throbbing instrument of macho power designed to impress the ladies by taking off at the lights a fraction of a pointless second faster than anyone else is an outmoded cliché. Sure, cheeky Jeremy Clarkson likes to do 186 miles (or thereabouts) an hour on the motorway, and Andrew Flintoff recently had to hire Mr Loophole to get him out of a speeding fine; but these two gentlemen, glorious examples of British manhood that they are, nevertheless remain more representative of the motor car's past than its future. Because really, when you think about it, modern motoring is all about women.

This bit is fantastic. Basically, she starts by making light of the idea that motoring (note she's talking about the fuel crisis, not just cars, from the outset) is a solely male issue before making sure everyone knows it's solely a female one. I love the smell of double standards in the morning.

Forget diamonds; in the overcrowded, time-pressured, work/life balance nightmare that is the average female's life, the motor car is a girl's best friend. To a woman, a car is no shiny penis extension; it's a handbag extension. For those of us with children, it's also a nappy-bag extension, a mobile crèche, a soft play centre and, in times of extreme need, a breast-feeding cubicle. A woman's car provides protection from the elements, useful free mobile storage and, crucially, security (show me a woman alone at night on public transport and I'll show you either a WPC or someone who has fallen asleep after a hen night). Above all, it represents personal freedom of the kind that public transport, still grotesquely inadequate despite repeated promises from government, simply cannot provide.

I don't argue that people in this day and age, including women, depend on their cars. I personally think this is their choice, their bed and their place to sleep, but that's only my opinion. I don't think the above is a feminist issue. The concept that the above things, such as protection, storage and security, aren't required by men is a outdated piece of tripe along the same lines of: 'All men can walk home on their own because, being men, each and every one of them is born with knowledge of ancient kung fu and can therefore protect themselves.' Neanderthal shite.

This is why women should be just as concerned, if not possibly more so, about the soaring cost of petrol as the hauliers. At least everyone seems to think that the brave truckers have an inalienable right to cheap fuel (not least, perhaps, because they're too scary to argue with). Women motorists, on the other hand, are somehow branded as frivolous, vain creatures whose only reason for getting behind the wheel is to safeguard their blow-dries as they potter from one coffee morning to the next.

Right. Firstly, hauliers are important as they... transport things. They transport the nappies to be stored in Sarah's fictional cars, as well as the cars themselves. Logistics are a vital part of living in a consumerist culture, so they are arguably more important to society as whole. I don't argue there are people out there who probably do fall into the cliché of deriding female drivers, but those people are wrong for generalising. Not that Sarah Vine has a problem with generalisations.

With a few notable exceptions, this could not be farther from the truth. For many of us, especially mothers who work, life would be nigh-on impossible without the use of a car. It's unfashionable to admit it, since we are all supposed to be committed to a green agenda, but the way our lives are structured make it inevitable. Sustained de-localisation, not just of shops and services, but also of schools and workplaces, has done more than simply degrade community spirits: it has consolidated the role of the car in our day-to-day lives.

"A few notable exceptions" is a statement with absolutely zero evidence behind it, so I'll politely try to skip past it. If this was a pub anecdote, then yes, such sweeping statements would be passable. But this is supposed to be serious Polly Filler! I mean... hack work. Sarah goes on to groan at the way 'de-localisation' has changed the structure of people's lives, as well as throwing in the green agenda for fun. Sarah, like a lot of people in the media, seems to view 'de-localisation' as something that happened overnight with a gun to our collective heads. The first bits she tries to argue (shops and services) is vaguely relevant. Over recent years supermarkets have grown used to setting up large super/mega/uber stores out of town centres. But these things are usually so big that they have some sense of transport link anyway, so I'm not sure how well her arguement works on this front. The latter two, work and schooling, don't stand up at all. Schools have been a sticking point for the past ten years of New Labour, with well to do families aware of how difficult it is to get a child into a 'good school'. Anyone with half a brain should have some knowledge of this before they had kids, so arguing about it after the toss is somewhat silly. As for work, well Sarah Vine can fuck right off. Big hack hives have always existed in London. Anyone getting into journalism surely realises they might have to, one day, commute into London if they can't afford to live there? Again, arguing after she's already made a choice.

Crippling fuel tax won't solve this problem; slowly and sensibly restructuring our lives so that we come to rely less on the car will. But that takes time and careful planning, something that the Government, on the whole, would rather avoid.

Fuel tax in this country is high, but that's how we've always worked. I don't really have a view on what should be done, as I'm not an economist, but the fact that other countries are demonstrating against massive oil prices shows this is not an A) British issue alone and B) One of tax alone. I think Sarah could do with a lesson on the Free Market Economy. If prices for a product rocket, fewer people can afford to buy it. Demand begins to drop. Prices begin to drop, soon after. This is a basic but realistic and workable model of looking at things.

Meanwhile, many children now travel unwalkable distances to get to school; their parents commute even farther afield. At the end of the working day, being late to pick up a child is simply not acceptable - or fair. I would love nothing more than to be able to get myself and my children to work and school on the bus; in reality, however, it would not be practical - not without all of us being hopelessly late, and one of us quite possibly getting fired. Without the flexibility and reliability of a car, life would grind to a halt.

At least I have the advantage of working in a city, where buses are not considered novelty items; for women living in the countryside, where public transport is as rare and as unexpected as a swallow in January, the car really is a lifeline. Village shops and schools have closed (or been closed) down, there isn't a post office for miles around, everything has been relocated to somewhere large and concrete and out of town - even obtaining a pint of milk requires a trip in the car.

More anecdotal Polly Filler. I used to work at a school and knew a large number of children who would take the bus to school, on free bus passes no doubt. My original point still stands, really. If you're going to set up a family, then plan things properly in advance. I would. Live close to schools, and close to work. If you choose to live far away from these vital facilities, you surely know what you're getting into before it even starts. If you are one of these anecdotal working mothers living in a village in the middle of nowhere, bereft of schools, shops and public transport (I'm assuming this imaginary village is just a pub and a few houses) then curse the modern world and deal with it. We, unfortunately, live in a centralised consumer society. If you, as a member of said society, have lost services from your area then they were deemed unsustainable. Way of the world, I'm afraid. Public transport could and should be better, but it's hardly in a shambles all over the country. If buses don't come often, then get an earlier one. That's what I was told when I was ever late for work.

Fuel duty is not just a political deal-breaker for Gordon Brown; it is a genuinely feminist issue. Without the short cuts afforded to women by cheap, flexible, personal transport, many working mothers would simply not be able to honour their various commitments to home, children and employer. Until someone can arrange the establishment of a Utopian Britain, where children cycle half a mile to school down empty, safe country lanes and mums work just around the corner, the car, for better or for worse, is going to remain king - and fuel duty an issue that affects even those sections of society without tattooed forearms.

The last bit is the first sensible thing she's half-said. Fuel duty effects everyone who has a car quite directly, but not as much as the rising cost of oil and linked economic factors help make absolutely everyone's life a pain in the arse. And while the point that said mini-crisis effects more than just big, hairy hauliers is a good one to make, the topsy-turvy switchover to the idea that it's a feminist issue is ridiculous. Women are effected. Men are effected. Individuals are effected. In all their lovely, silly, adorable ways. Let's stop cutting down gender divisions, it's both naive and boring as fuck.

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