Heard the one about the Orthodox Jewish woman suing Lancôme? (Independent Voices)

Advertising, as any consumer with their head screwed on is aware, isn’t really about telling the whole truth. That’s not to say that consistently eating Special K won’t give you the body of the fresh-faced model in red – simply that it’s just as likely you’ll end up with a stomach ache and a craving for chocolate. Buying that shampoo probably won’t leave your hair as salon glossy as Cheryl’s, unless you’re blessed with a personal hairdresser. And no matter how adorable the mascot, car insurance is surely not best chosen on that basis.

So the natural response, as we read with mirth of the woman who is suing Lancôme over the failure of her 24-hour-cream to last for that period, is to shake our heads. “How ridiculous,” we think. “Surely that’s not a real story.” Unfortunately, it is. Rorie Weisberg, who comes across as a veritable “disgusted of…” is apparently taking legal action so absurd that it is reminiscent of a case contested by Ally McBeal.

But, I’d hazard, the reason it’s been so gleefully shared around the web? She’s not just any disgruntled customer. She’s from the Orthodox Jewish community, a world brimming with seemingly bizarre rules and restrictions, like not being able to put on make-up on the Sabbath. A sexist, antiquated, closeted world where, as Weisberg’s case clarifies, women slather on make-up on a Friday night and require it to remain until sundown. A world where women see nothing strange about doing this.

The public seems to have something of a fascination with the strictly Orthodox community, just as it does with any other supposed outliers – Gypsies, say, or Mormons, or the Amish, or indeed people with 16 kids, or the unbelievably obese. I’ve lost count of the number of documentaries casting an eye on the Jews of Stamford Hill, or the regularity with which stories about sex guides for the ultra-religious appear. A photograph of an ultra-Orthodox man wrapped in plastic on a plane was shared around the globe, and discussed with amusement on Have I Got News For You.

To an extent, there’s a natural intellectual curiosity about a closed society; media coverage, and indeed television and books, offers a rare window. If we cannot experience something ourselves, the next best is to be told about it. Yet there’s a fine line between curiosity and thinly-veiled contempt, between offering the opportunity for people to learn about something and giving them a get-out-of-jail-free card to laugh about it.

At the risk of disagreeing with the herd, I found watching the musical The Book of Mormon rather uncomfortable, given that we were essentially being asked to snigger at the ignorant, whether the Mormon missionaries or the generic African villagers. Oh, but it was actually poking fun at American exceptionalism, I’m told. Well, yes, but what about the fact that it involved smug, superior writers all but giggling like children at a culture distinct from their own?

The Mormons, of course, have reacted rather well to the show, and launched a recruitment drive off the back of it. Good for them. And of course we should be able to laugh at religion, to point out its absurdities, and still tolerate it as part of a healthy melting-pot society. I might be Jewish, but I’ve no more connection than the next person to the baffling decisions made in the name of faith by those on the extreme fringes of the community. I can see the comedy value in a passenger who has essentially cling-filmed himself because he is so devout; I can appreciate how ludicrous it is that the woman wouldn’t just reapply the next morning. And it’s not as if these stories are fabricated to cast strictly Orthodox Jews in a bad light – on the contrary – perhaps frustratingly for the rest of the Jewish community – they are all too real.

And I know exactly why newspapers, documentary makers and bloggers seize on these cases – they are funny and ridiculous, and they guarantee plenty of web traffic and twitter discussion. But it’s hard to be totally relaxed with the way laughing about extreme religious behaviour has become so mainstream, so trendy.

For by and large, there is no attempt at understanding, at examination. These anecdotes are not reported on because they tell us anything about those communities, only because they are humorous. They reveal absurd caricatures taking observance to the furthest extreme, and tar an entire community with the brush of the strangest member. As a supposedly tolerant, inclusive society, I’m not sure we should be so comfortable with that.

This piece orginally appeared on the Independent website. See the orginal here

Gossip Girl recap: All the Pretty Sources

Was this week the start of the undoing of Gossip Girl? Probably not, but a couple of people took a good stab at it – La Hurley, Nate, Nate’s grandfather and of course, Louis the dark prince.

Back from his European exile, Prince Dullard takes a stab at buying Blair’s loyalty with sparkly and shiny things. When that doesn’t cut it, he decides to go on the offensive, and turn his princess-in-training against her friends.

As a short-term strategy it works, because Serena is planning Blair’s bridal bash and trying to conceal the glitziness of the proceedings with a series of lies about decor, menu and denim.

The shower is, this being Gossip Girl, a typical champagne and evening-wear affair, complete with a Tiffany’s lucky dip (never had that at my school fete). So, obvi, all is forgiven between “besties but actually frenemies” S and B. The whole plot though, of Blair being prima-donnaish about the event, was a bit weak.

The old Blair would have just found a way to seize control and organise new caterers etc, not merely whine about betrayal. Serena wouldn’t have known what hit her, while the minions would have become double agents.

Plus, what the hell was the dress she chose? And more to the point, what happened to the good old-fashioned hen do with women only, a semi-clothed bartender and phallic shaped party gifts? Surely Blair’s last hurrah should have involved something a little more scandalous than bubbly and ballgowns?

Into all the craziness comes Ivy’s ex, who, despite clearly being a couple of pennies of a pound, speedily realises that her “I wanted to see if you liked me or my money” excuse is total con. But if you can’t beat em con them; by episode’s end she is free of Diana’s blackmail but caught in ex-boyf’s web. Ex boyf, incidentally, is about to become Serena’s latest man plan.

Meanwhile, the bromance between Chuck and Dan continues, as the two of them mope about being rejected by Blair and sans invite to the shindig. Chuck’s solution is booze and call girls, but even getting stoned doesn’t do the trick and Dan manages to crash the party – that is, after disparaging a handful of stuck up guests in the lift.

Unsurprisingly, the lesson of this episode was that Dan is annoying and whiny when he is stoned, while Chuck is wise and disparaging. So,true to life then.

Over at the New York scheme-tator, Diana ends up out of a job, sacrificing her “career” – ha, please – because of her undying love (sorry, lust) for Nate. Seems this has been Grampy’s plan all along; to appoint a shrewd and capable teenager to run a media empire. Unfortunately, he temporarily forgot who his grandson was.

At one point Nate (re: the Gossip Girl upload) tells Diana he “hadn’t even thought” of posting the whole thing online. “I’m sure you hadn’t,” responds Diana, clearly not so blinded by love that she isn’t aware Nate is, well, Nate.

Diana is out of the building, but not out of the show. Her secret, which we can assume implicates grandpa and Bart Bass somewhere along the line, is destined to come out (at Blair’s wedding, probably).

And then there’s Blair and Louis. She calls time out on the relationship after she discovers Louis did the dirty with Gossip Girl’s correspondence (it’s not that her devious nature is out there for all to see that upsets her, it’s that he had the nerve to do something totally Blair-like that does), but having seen preview clips of the wedding, it doesn’t look like goodbye. I think we can assume that he’s not going to make it to the end of the series though.

He’s been taken by the forces of Gossip Girl darkness; in Gossip Girl terms, that’s like being got by the Lost smoke monster, You don’t escape its clutches too easily.

Amanda Knox was a victim of the internet age (The Telegraph)

If you were to look through my Facebook photographs, from over the last five years, you would see two versions of me. On the one hand, there I am as a dedicated student at two different graduation ceremonies, a bridesmaid, a keen baker, someone who came perilously close to tigers in Thailand and caught piranhas in Brazil.

Then there I am at clubs and bars, in not particularly modest outfits and with a drink in my hand. There I am making cocktails in a messy student house, on a hen night, or with a disparate collection of male and female friends.

In reality, there’s nothing in my visual history that is particularly controversial and very little that you wouldn’t see in the photo albums of my friends. But if the unthinkable happened and I was thrust into the public eye, it would be very easy to paint my back-story using either the former or the latter. If the media vultures so chose, I could be the freshfaced innocent or her polar opposite.

I am the same age as Amanda Knox only, unlike her, I didn’t spend my last birthday in jail. Thanks to yesterday’s ruling, Knox will spend her next one in the world she was a part of until four years ago. While her family rejoices, and Meredith Kercher’s continue their search for the truth, it’s doubtful that this outcome will change many minds.

This comment piece was first published in the Telegraph. Read the rest of it here

Josh Lyman, School Choices and Scoring Points (Huff Post UK)

Rahm Emanuel with his children

Rahm Emanuel, the former White House staffer, and the inspiration behind West Wing’s Josh Lyman, has had a bad news week. Politicians on this side of the Atlantic will sympathise. Just a few months into his first term as Chicago mayor – a position he had to fight darn hard for – he’s being accused of betraying his city’s public school system.

The reason? This avowed Democrat, a guy who pledged to champion the cause of education, decided to send his kids to private school.

For the Examiner, it was a “snub” and an insult to the Chicago school system, most other papers emphasised just how private and prestigious the school he’d chosen was.

A blogger for NBC Chicago noted snarkily that Rahm was rich enough to go to Thailand, while the rest of his neighbourhood could barely afford Thai meals.

“Decisions he makes in that private life may have public ramifications,” wrote Edward McClelland. “If the mayor doesn’t send his kids to public school, he’ll send a message that Chicago is not a city for the middle class, but a city for well-to-do families who can afford private school tuition.”

Time and again, this issue flares up, for politicians in different countries and of all stripes. Tony Blair dealt with it over the selective Oratory school, Nick Clegg too. It even came up in an episode of spoof series The Thick of It.

How can a politician not practice what he preaches, shriek the critics, as if they can solve problems only when their children are put at a disadvantage.

Hypocrisy? Maybe? But too often it’s beside the point.

This post first appeared on Huffington Post UK. Read the rest here.

Hugh Grant, Phone Hacking And The Case Against Ofcom For Print (Huff Post UK)

On Thursday’s Question Time, Prime Minister David – sorry, some actor named Hugh – put forward the argument for increased regulation of the press.

The phonehacking scandal was so bad, he said, that there was a clear case for a print media version of Ofcom.

Free press go to hell – you’ve screwed up and now you shall pay.

It’s a kneejerk reaction, and absolutely not the way to go. Let’s be clear, what happened at the late News of the World was disgraceful, but would more regulation really have stopped it?

Ofcom monitors after the event, not before or during. A journalist in the desperate hunt for a scoop, who displayed a willingness to circumvent common decency, would hardly have been deterred by the possibility of censure. Otherwise no potentially libellous and unnecessary story would ever get published and no televisions or radio broadcast would ever be found to have breached regulations.

More importantly, more regulation is essentially shorthand for a weaker fourth estate. Journalists are by no means saints, but neither are they all moral wastrels. Look, this week, at The Times’ adoption campaign.

That’s one example of a glorious history of changing the world through the printed word – a tradition that should be guarded, not dismissed at the first sign of a crack.

This post first appeared on Huffington Post UK. Read the rest here.

Words matter: Greenslade, Desmond, the EDL

When Jan Moir wrote that inflammatory column about the death of Stephen Gately, there was a Twitter campaign and public outrage almost immediately, Likewise, Liz Jones’ rather tasteless piece retracing Joanna Yeates’s final steps prompted web-wide consternation.

Roy Greenslade has admitted he was somewhat amiss to write in his blog about media baron Richard Desmond and the Daily Star’s English Defence League coverage: “As a Jew, he may well have negative views of Muslims”.

It’s an outrageous, idiotic line, a slur against all moderate members of the Jewish community and particularly offensive to those engaged in interfaith efforts, of whom there are many. Some Jews may well have “negative views” about Muslims, likewise some Muslims may well have negative views about Jews.

But there is no causal link; some is not all.

Greenslade was lucky enough to have prompted the ire of just one newspaper with his careless stereotype, rather than the masses out there in the blogosphere.

And as he told the JC, it was a “stupid”, thoughtless comment. He didn’t intend to insult Jews, he said, and he was glad the switched-on Guardian moderators had swiftly removed it.

So why did what he wrote matter? We all say stupid things, all of us, all the time. A flip remark, one made in the heat of the moment, so why not let it lie? Why cause a fuss.

Here’s why. Let’s look at where Mr Greenslade made the comment – in a blogpost condemning the intolerance and bigotry of the EDL.

An informed reader might well have recognised the wider point – that Jewish people, given the history of the last century, should be at the frontline in the fight against fascism.

It’s an important and logical argument. But here’s the thing. As the famous quote goes: “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.”

History teaches us as Jews not only to stand up in the battle against bigotry, but also that bigots don’t always read newspaper articles in an informed way.

The generations of ordinary people who hated the Jews did so not least because of the ugly and cheap stereotypes peddled by respected writers and commentators.

They learnt intolerance from the politicians – in Tsarist Russia to Nazi Germany and beyond – who blamed public woes on Jewish conspiracies, from the caricaturists who saw in Jews an easy target, and from journalists who didn’t recognize, or didn’t care to recognise, the power of their words.

Words matter. As Greenslade knows (and blogs about regularly), especially online they have a life beyond themselves.

A throwaway headline in the Daily Star can become another tool in the EDL’s war-chest, regardless of what the story actually was.

A news article about a “Muslim’s” actions – when religion is of little relevance to the story – is fodder for the bigot’s cause.

And an unnecessary line about Jews having “negative views” about Muslims, from an informed and respected writer, is yet another piece of evidence for the antisemitic extremist as to why he hates Jews.

Words always matter.

Millennials Magazine

I’d like to draw attention to a great new (and new media) project over in (where else) America. It’s a web venture called Millennials Magazine – an internet only publication for, about, and by, twentysomethings.

Since launching – just a few weeks ago – they have already produced some fascinating and insightful content about Generation-whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-us. Their mission, so to speak, is this:

“… to give millennials a chance to speak independently, to begin to define ourselves against an avalanche of polemical articles defining us as a generation “victim to the recession” and “stupefied by technology.”

Ok, it’s a pretty ostentatious way of describing something that is essentially a glorified blog. But contrary to what Andrew Marr believes, blogs can be interesting, innovative and powerful. There’s plenty out there on the web that isn’t worth reading, but some of what’s on Millennials Magazine definitely is.

I can direct you to a letter from someone serving as a soldier in the United States Army, a comment on the myth of the plugged in youth and a great rhapsody about the joys of The OC.

If that’s not enough to pique your interest; it’s already got a mention on culture bible Slate Magazine.

Plus: As of today my work is on the site; an article about the trials and tribulations of living at home in London, which you can read here.