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Pagemaster: Brendan O'Neill (brendan@mail.informinc.co.uk)

Rubbishing democracy

The news that Jörg Haider's right-wing Freedom Party would form part of Austria's new coalition government caused an international outcry. Haider and his party stand accused of racism, xenophobia and, in the words of US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, refusing to 'distance themselves clearly from the atrocities of the Nazi era and the politics of hate'. On 3 February, 14 EU member governments 'quarantined' Austria, downgrading diplomatic contacts and threatening sanctions, while the US government expressed 'deep concern' and called its ambassador back to Washington 'for consultations'.

Does Haider's move into government really herald a return to Europe's dark past? Anti-Freedom Party protesters in Vienna waved placards saying '1938 reasons to oppose the Freedom Party', comparing the election of the Freedom Party in 2000 with Austria's annexation by Germany in 1938. Commentators point out that Austria has never come to terms with its past, which is 'now coming to the surface in the form of socially tolerated dislike of immigrants' (Guardian, 5 February). The Freedom Party may be racists who blame immigrants for Austria's social and economic problems - but with every EU member state demanding that the party adopts European principles of social democracy, and given Haider has promised to toe the line and behave like a 'proper European politician', Europe is unlikely to be drowned by a new wave of fascism.

More worrying was the European Union's reaction. It seems that the 'European democracy' we have heard so much about means voting for whomever you like - as long as they fit in with the EU's definition of what makes acceptable politics. The Freedom Party won 27 percent of the vote in last October's election; but backing from the voters is no longer a good enough justification for taking your seats, as anybody who mentioned Haider's mandate found when they faced accusations of apologising for the party's anti-immigration agenda. The notion seems to be that democracy is dangerous as soon as it allows people to vote for those who do not meet with the EU's approval.

The idea that Europe could slip back into its fascist past may be the product of fevered imaginations. But the undermining of democracy in the name of preserving European unity is all too real.

Brendan O'Neill

Pulling no punches

Having predictably defeated Julius Francis in two rounds and less than five minutes, Mike Tyson can go back to life in the United States knowing that he will never be a 'nice guy'. Since his conviction for rape in 1992, Tyson has made some attempt to rehabilitate himself: marrying a doctor, converting to Islam, and claiming he is much misunderstood. But his visits to the mosque weren't going to wash in Britain. While all the London mayoral candidates joined forces with Lambeth City Council and Justice for Women to condemn Tyson as a 'pariah' and a 'menace to women', Trevor Phillips condemned 'the Tyson-as-victim scenario' as just another PR stunt.

Why does Mike Tyson inspire such an excited reaction from those who wouldn't normally recognise a boxer if he hit them in the face? At a time when 'masculinity' and macho values are seen as an anathema to today's emotionally literate society, Tyson, with his misogynist record and brutal profession, has become the personification of everything that is 'the trouble with men'. He is nasty, menacing, brutish, mean, insensitive and violent. But then, he is a boxer. And as Francis quickly discovered, sensitivity does you no favours in a match.

Sally Millard


With less than 48 hours to go until showtime, I got the call. Friends in Glasgow had been 'given' a handful of tickets to see Iron Mike live in Manchester and I gained the added perk of spending the evening with Glasgow Celtic and Manchester United legend Pat Crerand. Crerand summed up the attitude of most boxing fans when he commented that 'being there' was just as important as what happened in the ring.

Julius Francis received a good reception from his countrymen, but Tyson entered the stadium to what felt like an earthquake. The fight began with a clumsy barrage of slaps from Francis, and everybody knew what would happen next. A devastating blow to the body, followed by a right uppercut that sent Francis to the canvas for the first time, was only matched by the raw power that followed every Tyson punch.

Tyson may not have the boxing head of my childhood hero Muhammad Ali, but he makes up for it in his determination to win and win quickly. I heard no complaints about the length of the fight - even from those who had paid. Five minutes was enough to give a snapshot of the powerful boxer Tyson once was.

Alex Cameron

Guilt-tripping parents

With the spotlight on cot death once again, parents may well find themselves unable to sleep. The study Sudden Unexpected Deaths in Infancy 1993-96 was published in February, amid a flurry of publicity; a national conference on cot death is due to be held in April; and cot death 'appeal week' looms in May. The fact that the number of babies dying from cot death continues to fall rarely makes the headlines. Instead, parents still find themselves blamed for the deaths that have occurred.

Cot death is an ill-defined term used to describe any infant death for which there is no other explanation. Ninety-two percent of cot deaths in 1998 occurred in babies aged under six months. There are no sure signs and the precise mechanisms that can cause cot death remain unknown. According to the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID), 'the UK's leading cot death charity', since 1991 cot deaths have fallen by 72 percent, from 1008 to 284 in 1998. This makes the risk of cot death very rare indeed (0.45 per 1000). The FSID sees this fall in numbers as the result of its campaign in the early 1990s which advised parents that, through adopting certain types of behaviour, they could potentially 'Reduce the risk of cot death'. Now, in an attempt to lower the incidence further, yet more advice is being issued to parents.

The problem is that, despite the rarity of cot death, this advice causes all parents to worry about almost every aspect of their behaviour. Since the early 1990s they have been told to: 'Place your baby on the back to sleep; cut smoking in pregnancy - fathers too; do not let anybody smoke in the same room as your baby; do not let your baby get too hot; keep your baby's head uncovered; place your baby with feet to the foot of the cot.' Now the following guidelines have been added: 'Do not fall asleep with a baby on a sofa; do not share a bed with a baby if you are a smoker, have recently drunk alcohol, are excessively tired or take drugs or medication that make you sleepy; do keep your baby's cot in your bedroom for the first six months.' Implicit in this advice is that, if tragedy strikes, you must have done something wrong.

The focus on parenting methods as a possible cause of cot death means that everyday parenting practices have become open to scrutiny by healthcare professionals, who are expected to deliver the above guidelines and ensure that parents follow them. Health visitors and GPs have been accused of failing to prevent cot deaths (12 percent and eight percent respectively) because of substandard care. Meanwhile, the authors of Sudden Unexpected Deaths in Infancy 1993-96 accuse parents of ignoring advice on cot death prevention and estimate that this contributed to 60 percent of the deaths that occurred during those three years.

Because the tragedy of cot death continues to affect disproportionately families living in poor circumstances, support is now to be targeted at them through government initiatives such as 'Sure Start'. But families will not be given any of the dedicated £450 million directly to tackle their socioeconomic deprivation. Instead, they will receive a range of additional support, services and advice from a variety of professionals. This will not guarantee parents' immunity from the unlikely tragedy of cot death, but it will invariably add to the worry and concern parents already feel with regard to babies and young children. It is time to lay off.

Bríd Hehir is a specialist health visitor in London

The what's NOT on guide

MINORITY CONCERNS: The Broadcasting Standards Commission has slapped Channel 4's 11 O'Clock Show for joking about the late Jill Dando (six complaints received) and Jonathan Ross for making light of the 'date rape' drug Rohypnol (one complaint received). For the 58 million UK citizens who did not complain about either of these remarks, tough. WINDBAGS: Glyn Hopper, head of Sowerby Primary School in North Yorkshire, has written to parents asking them to stop their children watching the cult cartoon series South Park, after a rise in swearing and bad behaviour among pupils. Some pupils drew Hopper's attention to this problem through the school council. 'I am proud of them for bringing this up', says Hopper. Clearly, she hasn't seen the South Park film where Kyle's mom organises a boycott of Terrance and Phillip - the South Park kids' favourite TV show whose farting characters and crude stories bear more than a passing resemblance to, well, South Park. A case of life imitating art, perhaps? BLOWING THE BIG TOP: The US Congress is set to pass a bill outlawing performing elephants in circuses. Sam Farr, proposing the bill, claims that 'dancing elephants and other performing animals give children a distorted view of wildlife'. And you see trapeze artists every day. THE FRENCH CONNECTION: A French comic book exhibition was forced by Catholic protesters to withdraw a Robert Crumb poster, only weeks after the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyons was fined 5000 francs for the sex and violence featured in an exhibition of comic book art. The UK's Viz (celebrating its anniversary with a London exhibition) should take note. OUT TO LUNCH: Sixty women librarians and curators at the British museum have petitioned to have a sculpture of a nude woman removed from the canteen. They say it 'grossly distorts the female form', is sexist, offensive, puts them off their food and encourages men to make lewd remarks. Yes, but is it art?

Compiled by Sandy Starr

Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000



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