Image courtesy of Working Class Movement Library, Salford
I’m writing to you to support the Library’s invitation to Julie Bindel to speak about being a young working class lesbian. It was a smart and bold invitation, and I’m aware that you have attracted a great deal of hostility as a result. You may feel taken aback and shocked, but you should be aware that for every protest there are likely to be many more people supporting your invitation.
You will know, I’m sure, that good, calm, stalwart and unobtrusive stewarding is the key to contexts like this, to protect everyone’s safety and good manners, and to ensure that everyone who wants to participate peacefully is able to do so.
May I share some of my own experience with you — in the hope that it might encourage you to withstand the hostility.
I have been involved in working class, progressive politics all my adult life and I have received many awards and honours for my writing. I came out as gay in my early 20s — in the 1970s — and like many other gay people I have felt over the past few years that what was once an open, inclusive, exhilarating politics, which has been spectacularly successful in advancing gay rights, has become overwhelmed by a toxic element of trans activism, a campaign of authoritarian silencing in the name of ’safe space’. Many gay activists, particularly women, are now deeply alienated. Some years ago I wrote an article in the Guardian opposing the NUS no-platforming of Julie Bindel.
I should say that she is a friend, I’ve known her since the 1980s when I made a TV documentary on battered women who kill their assailants, and since Justice for Women and Southall Black Sisters campaigned successfully for the release of Kiranjit Aluwhalia.
Julie Bindel is one of the founders of Justice for Women, a pathbreaking movement supporting women who live with violence, and an enduring campaigner against violence and sexual exploitation of women, and for gay rights.
We have disagreed about many things — not least the Green Party, for whom I’ve been a local and Parliamentary candidate. But I would go to great lengths to defend her right to write and speak and, just as important, for people’s opportunity to hear her in person and to challenge her. She is always interesting, adroit and sometimes very witty and, yes, offensive.
I support the Index on Censorship approach to this: there is no right to not be offended.
During the 2010 General Election, trans gender friends in the Green Party alerted me to some trans activist threats to picket me at hustings — they offered to attend the hustings in the event of trouble. There was no trouble, those making the threat never turned up.
In the last couple of years the movement to no-platform people who are against the sexual exploitation of women, who support the ’Nordic model’, or who have a critique of some trans positions on gender, have also found themselves being subjected to harassment.
It was in response to this that myself and Prof Deborah Cameron (also a working class lesbian, by the way) organised a letter to The Observer opposing no platforming. The 130+ signatories included people who are transgender, and who have been involved in prostitution.
This was repudiated by another letter the following week, initiated by Sara Ahmed.
I suggested to a couple of publications — a progressive Oxbridge journal, and a lesbian magazine — that they host a round table to air the issues. My contact on the Oxbridge journal rejected the idea on the grounds that it was universities’ duty to provide students with a safe space, a ‘home’ away from home. The lesbian magazine editor rejected the proposal — the editor, very committed to trans people, admitted to me that she was afraid.
I also wrote a couple of letters to the London Review of Books in response to a long feature by Jacqueline Rose which had failed to address these controversies, and which did not engage with trans activists who do not support no platforming, and who have a critique of some trans people’s theories of gender:
Here is another link that includes references to some other very interesting contributions:
You may, of course, not be interested in all of this. You may disagree with me.
But whatever your position on trans gender debates might be, there are vital ethical and political issues at stake here for all of us:
The claim that critique or analysis or debate amount to ‘killing’ is an abuse of language.
And what is being suppressed by no-platforming is not only the right to speak, but other people’s right to listen, to participate and to challenge.
It has taken centuries of heroic effort for oppressed and marginalised people to find their voices; Julie Bindel is one of those voices; the Library is a monument to those efforts and to its founders, Ruth and Eddie Frows’ commitment to honouring them.
Please don’t be afraid. Be brave, be normal, keep on doing what you do so well — showing the richness of working class life and struggles.
No sooner had he won overwhelmingly, than a queue of discontented MPs were lined up to protest.
This is an example of what the political and cultural scholar, Prof Jeremy Gilbert describes as the ‘anti-democratic discourse’ of what passes for political commentary.
Hilary Benn recycled his anti-Corbyn plea for military intervention in the Middle East – as if staking out a lonely pitch for himself as a Churchillian anti-appeasement, anti-fascist leader in waiting;
Anti Corbyn Louise Ellman was everywhere; Chukka Umanna re-iterated his cautions against de-selection of MPs…same old voices, same old complaints…endless laments that Corbyn is unelectable…
Will they still be rehearsing these lines if and when Labour Party membership – excited by the prospect of a social democratic political project for the first time in three decades – hits 1 million?
Will they rebuke the party members if and when they mobilise actual, active resistance to the Tories’ neo-liberal strategy?
Why? Because they can’t stop themselves: they are fighting for their political lives. Not because they are menaced by a de-selecting mob, but because most of the Parliamentary Labour Party has been shaped by New Labour and it our doesn’t know what else to do. It has been chosen and trained by New Labour; it has been disciplined by New Labour, and by its biblical belief that there is no alternative, that Labour’s adoption of the neo-liberal global settlement is not only Peter Mandelson’s failed Third Way, it is the Only Way.
The surprising dullness of candidates challenging Corbyn during the first leadership election campaign, and their performance since then, is indicative — it is a kind of mute inability to connect with the impact of 2008 and the neo-liberal implosion; it renders them the living dead.
The decline and fall of political journalism, its cloistered internment on Westminster Green, its symbiotic dependence upon the tenants of the raggy palace across the road, produces gossip as a proxy for analysis.
It worked well with a party leadership that controlled the commentariat much as it controlled the party. But it doesn’t work when the membership itself is taking everyone — including itself — by surprise.
I once described New Labour as a kind of anti-party party — an organisation run by people who didn’t like its members, a project that preferred an audience to a membership. That era has been extinguished by the rush to join up and join in.
Hence Corbyn’s critics’ strange obsession with the new mass membership as a ‘movement’ rather than a ‘party’. Prof Jeremy Gilbert has written an adroit critique of this polarisation.
Movement and party are not irreconcilable — exemplified by the Green Party which is both a movement and a party. The rise of radical anti-austerity movements across Europe and Scandinavia, Podemos, Syriza and the pirate parties, are simultaneously movements and parties.
You can have effective movements that aren’t political parties — feminism is the exemplar: movements, ideas, campaigns that don’t have an address, a political energy and imagination that is not tethered to a place or time.
Civil rights movements in the US, Northern Ireland and South Africa operated within and beyond the boundaries of parties.
But as Labour needs to know by now: you can’t have successful mass parties that aren’t also movements.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, transgender debates have got — if not worse exactly, then — nastier.
The description ’transphobic’ has been thrown at the Morning Star newspaper for running debates on transgender themes.
Actually, the paper is with the zeitgeist, consistently publishing positive reports on transgender people’s rights — as well as trans and feminist debates and differences. It is hard to imagine a ‘straight’ paper less deserving of the slur.
It is an index of just how hot this is that a mighty 300 people have signed a letter supporting the paper and repudiating the ‘phobe’ attack.
Transgender campaigns for recognition have been stunningly successful. Laws have been changed, minds and bodies and cultures are being changed; characters appear in successful TV series, from Coronation Street to Orange is the New Black….and transwomen have become stars:
Bruce Jenner’s re-incarnation as Caitlyn Jenner gets a Vanity Fair cover and an American Glamour Women of the Year award.
I’m not talking to you
And yet, and yet…. amidst these triumphs there is a wave of bullying that, in the name of of sympathy for trans people’s suffering and struggles out of marginalisation, seeks to whip, so to say, public debate into submission.
In this context, Miranda Yardley is a rare voice: a regular contributor to the great convo, including in the Morning Star, and a robust and rigorous advocate of feminism and the specifics of transsexualism, with much to say about the state of transgender politics.
She has exposed how the no-platforming of feminists alleged to be ‘transphobic’ and ‘whorephobic’ is bleeding into the transgender community itself.
In May the New Statesman and the London Review of Books published two long, wide and deeply thoughtful pieces on transgender themes by two smart public intellectuals and writers on gender, Sarah Ditum and Jacqueline Rose:
Sarah Ditum, the Staggers’ witty, always reflective columnist.
Jacqueline Rose, an LRB regular, Professor of Humanities at Birkbeck, a questing, often elegantly ambivalent writer.
My own participation is concerned with censorship, no platforming and the silencing of debate and dissent.
No to no-platforming
This is my response to comments on no platforming in the otherwise subtle essay by Jacqueline Rose:
‘I am pretty sure that, were I transsexual, I wouldn’t want [Germaine] Greer on any platform of mine,’ Jacqueline Rose writes (LRB, 5 May). But she isn’t transsexual and public platforms don’t belong to her, or to transsexuals or to anyone else: they belong to the collective we – the public. Public platforms aren’t places for chats between pals. They exist in a forum where we, the public, get to hear people, be in their presence, listen, learn, call them to account; a forum where we get to join in public conversation, where we do politics.
Rose understands that of course, and she states her position: ‘I tend to be opposed to no-platforming.’ But she sets Greer up as the demonic person who goes too far, who breaches Rose’s own tendency and warrants banishment. Greer is an easy target. Her opinions on transgender issues are described as ‘hateful’. ‘Hate’ and ‘phobia’ are part of the hyperbolic lexicon of trans debates. Another pioneering feminist activist, Julie Bindel, has been declared ‘vile’ and no-platformed in resolutions affirming trans rights passed by conferences of the National Union of Students. Bindel is cheeky, irreverent and occasionally offensive. She is also an adroit campaigner for justice for the most marginalised and maligned women. But the NUS does not allow students to hear her in person, or to be heard by her.
That is why the no-platforming of feminists in the name of trans sensibilities is so toxic: it not only silences some feminist voices and purges legitimate feminist discourse from some public platforms, it excludes students themselves from active participation, from challenging and changing their own and other people’s minds. I once invited an NUS women’s officer to debate that ban in public. No, she said. So, a feminist is consigned to the NUS proscribed list, along with neo-fascists.
More recently I suggested that one of Britain’s leading gay journals – I won’t name and shame – host a round-table. No, they said. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Are you frightened?’ Yes, they said. I suggested the same thing to an Oxbridge political journal. No, they didn’t think they would or could, they said, because university must be a safe space, like home. As if every home is safe! As if debate is dangerous.
I should declare an interest: Jacqueline and I are old friends, we have enjoyed agreeing and disagreeing with each other for years. But I find myself foxed: why in 15,000 words is Greer’s purported hatefulness flagged, but not the bullying that flays feminism? The sexual revolution wrought by feminist and gay activism has, of course, changed the political landscape in which trans lives can be lived. It co-exists with the commodification of gender archetypes and the reinstatement of seemingly polarised and parodic masculinities and femininities. All of this can be aired in feminist forums and, say, Mumsnet, but not in trans/feminist discourse in the NUS.
As I write, up pops the following notification from ‘youngradfems’:
Unfortunately we’ve had to take down the post ‘how I became a cis-privileged shitlord’ because the author was scared of being outed as a DISGUSTING TERF [trans-exclusionary radical feminist] BITCH if her fellow students found out about her radical feminist views. Yet another example of radical feminist young women being bullied into silence.
The NUS impulse to no-platform feminists who problematise transsexualism or prostitution, who attract the abusive designation ‘transphobic’ and ‘whorephobic’ (they often go together), has migrated to other venues and organisations.
In February 2015 Deborah Cameron and I gathered more than 130 signatures to a letter published in the Observer opposing no-platforming and the stifling of debate. Rose was not one of them. It was provoked by the Bindel ban, new purges, and threats to feminist students and to the comedian Kate Smurthwaite at Goldsmiths (she has expressed support for the ‘Nordic model’ – criminalising the purchase of sex); it also referred to the Germaine Greer kerfuffle, and the ugly harassment of the philosophy lecturer Rupert Read. He’d written a philosophical essay on transgender and feminist issues in 2013 but two years later he was subjected to a public thrashing. People threatened to picket his election appearances as a Green Party candidate. ‘There are few things more conservative,’ Sarah Brown, a transgender former LibDem councillor in Cambridge, wrote about Read, ‘than the view that trans people are dirty perverts who shouldn’t be indulged in our supposed delusion, that sex workers are wanton harlots who are certainly to be discouraged, and that masturbation is some kind of social ill that needs eradicating.’
Read, of course, held no such opinions. But that didn’t matter. Following relentless attacks on social media, including death threats, and with the Green Party itself thoroughly spooked, Read had to ‘retract’ things that he had never said in the first place. Brown, a leading trans activist, had form, a talent for spite. In a public riposte to a fellow Cambridge councillor, she wrote: ‘I invite you to suck my formaldehyde pickled balls.’ This field is bloodied with ‘hatefulness’.
Our ‘no to no-platforming’ Observer letter said: ‘You do not have to agree with the views that are being silenced to find these tactics illiberal and undemocratic. Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying. We call on universities and other organisations to stand up to attempts at intimidation and affirm their support for the basic principles of democratic political exchange.’ The signatories included scholars and activists, transsexuals, people for and against prostitution united by commitment to democratic debate and opposition to no-platforming.
One of the signatories was Mary Beard. She – like Deborah and I – didn’t know what all the signatories thought about the contested issues, but the day after the letter appeared she wrote on her blog that they included ‘many I am proud to be next to: Nimko Ali, Peter Tatchell, Lisa Appignanesi, Melissa Benn, Caroline Criado-Perez, Catherine Hall, Gia Milinovich, Sophie Scott, Francesca Stavrakopoulou, and loads more. Hardly the forces of gender darkness, unless you are a real reactionary.’ Yet, she continued,
since the letter was posted on the Guardian website … I have been bombard[ed] by tweets … I got sixty tweets in the space of about an hour from one person alone … Last night I went to bed wanting to weep … It wasn’t the force of any remark, it was the relentless pummelling of attack on the basis of extraordinary loaded, sometimes quite wrong, readings of the letter … You can see why a lot of women (and there is a gender issue here) might choose not to put their heads above the parapet.
Peter Tatchell was also bombarded – all the more galling for him because he is a strong advocate of trans people and sex workers. Many responses, he wrote, ‘were hateful and abusive: homo, foreigner, misogynist, paedophile, nutter and so on. Others were threatening: “I would like to tweet about your murder you f*cking parasite.”’ The pioneering trans campaigner Stephen Whittle blogged: ‘I was astonished to discover that those social justice campaigners, Peter Tatchell and Mary Beard, among others, had become the latest attack of the twittering trans-sirens.’ Was this ‘vicious streak’, he wondered, the ‘death of the inclusive, tolerant trans community’? The answer seems to be yes.
Sara Ahmed, professor in race and cultural studies at Goldsmiths, is adamant: ‘There cannot be a dialogue when some at the table are in effect or intent arguing for the elimination of others at the table.’ But speaking is not the same as pointing a gun, as Whittle reminds us. Ahmed organised a group response to our Observer letter, published in the paper a week later: ‘We do not agree that freedom of speech is freedom to speak unaccountably.’ But NUS no-platforming does, precisely, prevent speaking accountably: it not only proscribes speech but students’ active participation – in hearing and, crucially, being heard.
Feminism is nothing if not a politics that problematises gender and the construction of masculinities and femininities; it is bound to get into ‘gender trouble’. Who knows whether ‘What is a woman?’ is a feminist question or a patriarchal conundrum? Transsexuals, including Kate Bornstein and Miranda Yardley, for example, have put these questions on the trans agenda.
If feminism can’t make gender trouble then it can’t talk about anything, indeed it is silenced by Ahmed’s authoritarian notion of ‘dialogue’: language loses meaning and politics is shot.
Tory grandees, former ministers and yesterday’s men queue up to denounce the police for investigating sexual abuse allegations against members of the Tory establishment.
They demand that the Metropolitan police apologise to the widow of Lord Leon Brittan for failing to inform her promptly that her late husband was no longer under investigation for the alleged rape ‘of an adult female’ — indeed some seem to want an apology for investigating in the first place.
But a review, published in February by Dorset Police Deputy Chief Constable John Vaughan, of the Met’s decision to investigate the alleged rape has deemed it ‘proportionate’ and ‘justified’.
It has described the ‘adult female’ — known as ‘Jane’ — as ‘compelling’.
There is no apology, however, to ‘Jane’ who has been traduced by politicians and press for daring to come forward to tell her story.
She says that Lord Leon Brittan raped her in London in 1967 when she was 19 years old.
Dorset’s review should embarrass the Home Affairs Select Committee that last autumn chided the Met and deputy Labour leader Tom Watson, who had prodded the Met on behalf of ‘Jane’.
Tom Watson was to be put in the stocks for writing to the Met about ‘Jane’ after the officer in charge, DCI Paul Settle, had decided in early 2014 not to interview Lord Brittan, and not to take the case any further.
Although it was widely aired that Watson had triggered re-investigation, the Home Affairs Select Committee acknowledged that the Met had already decided two weeks beforehand to review the case and to remove DCI Settle.
This is what DCI Settle told the committee:
‘Despite ‘Jane’ insisting that she’d been raped, in law she hadn’t’; The points to prove rape ‘were not there’; he was ‘not convinced that the offence is made out’; he believed that to interview such an important figure as Lord Brittan — which would have been normal practice — would be not only ‘disproportionate’ but unlawful and a ‘baseless witchhunt’.
There were other allegations against Brittan which could be compromised if it became public knowledge that he’d been investigated for the alleged rape ‘of an adult female’, he said.
But Dorset police did not agree. The investigation was ‘necessary, proportionate and fully justified despite the significant passage of time.’ It was not unlawful.
‘Jane’ the witness was ‘compelling’, she was a ‘competent witness, who displays no malice in her motivation. Her accounts of her
situation in 1967 are corroborated and it is plausible that she was moving in similar social circles to LB.’
Jane went to the police toward the end of 2012 to report that she had been raped in 1967: she had been on a blind date with Leon Brittan, he had suggested dropping by his house on the way to their evening out. There he locked the door, trapped her and raped her.
In September 2013 that DCI Paul Settle abandoned the investigation.
It was after this that, disgusted by the press and politicians who so blithely disparaged ‘Jane’, a woman contacted me.
‘Jane’ had been her flatmate in 1967. She’d been contacted by the police a couple of years earlier — ‘Jane’ had remembered her name and passed it to the police; she’d been around at the time of the rape. She was contacted through her medical records.
This is what she had to say about why she had come forward
“I just felt everybody was flooding to Leon Brittan’s defence. She doesn’t have anybody. They’re saying that things she said can’t be corroborated. That’s true insofar as it goes.”
I inferred that there was no evidence to convict, but…
They had shared a flat in 1966-7 when ‘Jane’ was a 19-year-old student, ‘She was really sweet. She looked very young; she was quite naive; we felt very protective of her.’
They belonged to a wide group of friends who’d go to the pub and parties together and they’d take ‘Jane’ with them. Men in their circle knew Leon Brittan, professionally and politically.
She recalled an occasion in the summer of 1987 after one of their parties. She arrived home at the flat and found ‘Jane’ sobbing.
‘We were quite young, she didn’t want to talk about it and we didn’t push it.’
The former flatmate was candid and clear — she was not claiming any more than her own memories of ‘Jane’ and their circle — a network that included Brittan — at the time that ‘Jane’ said she had been raped by Brittan.
“All I can say about her is that she was nice, a sweet kid. I didn’t recognise any mental health problems. I said to the police I had no reason to disbelieve her. In those days a lot of men were out to have you. She’d not have been able to defend herself.”
Furthermore, even if ‘Jane’ had talked about rape, “I would not have recommended that she spoke to the police back then women were often treated badly when they reported rape.”
The controversy about Brittan is also contaminated by a toxic public disagreement between journalists who have pursued sexual abuse allegations.
Exaro has been accused of excess and bad judgement in another case.
But Exaro is merely the arena in which ‘Jane’ has told her story. It may never have reached the evidential standards needed to mount a prosecution and it reported that ‘Jane’ understood the difficulty.
So, too, did Dorset’s Deputy Commissioner.
The review by the Deputy Chief Constable of Dorset has been received with predictable disdain by the detractors. Former Minister David Mellor has loyally defended Brittan — he had a Rolls Royce brain, said Mellor, whilst Dorset ‘a small country force is allowed to tell the Met they did a great job.’
The Parliamentary debate on bombing IS/Daesh in Syria was brought to an intense and rousing conclusion by Hilary Benn, Shadow Foreign Secretary. It was Benn rather than Tory Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond who inspired the House of Commons — MPs endured Hammond and applauded Hilary Benn.
The commentariat relished the difference between Hilary Benn and the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, but also inevitably, perhaps, with his father Tony Benn.
It was as if they had not noticed Hilary Benn’s eloquent defence of his leader — as a politician and as a person — and his unrequited invitation to David Cameron to apologise for his ‘terrorist sympathiser’ slur.
And it as if they had not noticed that throughout Hilary Benn’s parliamentary life he has not been an echo of his father — that the Benn family has survived generational and individual differences with better manners than most.
Melissa Benn — the only girl among Tony and Caroline Benn’s children, an astute writer and activist — reminds us that ‘the Benns have something of a history of courteous exchange but also of opinions strongly held to and expressed. Often not exciting enough for rapacious press, looking for gossip, intrigue and networking and power plays.
She’s right: schism and ‘irreconcilable differences’ attract attention, whilst respectful, intelligent and peaceful co-existence doesn’t.
Hilary Benn is not his father.
This is not a dynastic drama; it isn’t a sectarian schism either.
Hilary Benn has always disagreed with Tony Benn and with Jeremy Corbyn about Britain’s wars.
That makes Benn’s appointment as Foreign Secretary by Corbyn a daring move; just as his appointment of Maria Eagle as shadow Defence Secretary is also interesting. They don’t agree on the war in Syria. They don’t agree on the renewal of Trident nuclear missiles.
So, they’re going to have to work it out.
The surprise is that they’re going to try. And they’re going to try in the knowledge that these issues are difficult because they are difficult, we should expect disagreement because they are among the most testing themes of our times.
Listening to the Syria debate and Benn, brought to mind not his father but Parliament itself and a sense that Benn was emancipated by the context — Parliamentary democracy at work.
I didn’t agree with him about the bombing. But Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who has brought a genial tone to the Corbyn team, lost his touch a bit when he said Benn’s speech was like Tony Blair in 2003 when he argued for war in Iraq.
No, he wasn’t.
Benn wasn’t so much charismatic as effective: the performance was adroit, supple and smart. He didn’t overwhelm the honourable members with evangelism, he didn’t deceive or bully. He invited them to think, and to be available for persuasion. That’s what made his speech bracing.
Unlike, for example, David Cameron who de-humanised the enemy, Benn discussed some particulars — acts of violence animated by a special kind of manly excitement; an enemy that electrified by violence that is also thought-about and strategic: aimed not only at destruction but the theatre of terror.
That’s what made his allusion to fascism so interesting. Who knows if he’s right, but the word takes us to other modern — not medieval — ideologies of supremacist violence: the Nazis, Mussolini’s nationalism, racist lynching in the United States.
If he soared on this occasion it was because the occasion — the place, the time, the people — demanded it: here was Parliamentary debate at its best, and here was Hilary Benn doing his best.
Weirdly, the commentariat responded not by thinking, but by boxing the speech into its own discourses about power and politics. They’re missing the point: this isn’t about splits (whatever the ‘traitor’ twitters outside Parliament get up to).
Isn’t disagreement and debate what happens in political parties, in relationships, in families?
Westminster’s political culture isn’t used to this — witness the utter bewilderment about Scotland’s great independence conversation: households, friends, lovers dissented from each other — but they didn’t get divorced or die. They kept talking.
This is good politics, and Westminster and the commentariat should get used to it.
What we witnessed during the Syria debate was a party that was functioning; recovering from near death, from being eviscerated, hollowed out; from being ruled by diktat, by people whose anti-party politicking left Labourism too terrified to do what it is supposed to do: think, look right, look left, look right again and then go.
Former Daily Mirror editor, and unrequited lover of US television, Piers Morgan, is settling into ITV’s breakfast slot. Expect more of the eloquent bile he offered in response to Andrew Neil’s celebrated rant on This Week, in the aftermath of the Paris massacres.
Morgan admired Neil’s rant. It chimed with the country’s ‘blind fury’.
Neil had addressed himself directly to the ISIS attackers: you, he said, ’loser jihadis’, he said, ‘Islamist scumbags’.
Followed by an itinerary of the glories of France, its food and drink, its enlightenment.
‘You’ won’t win, he warned the Islamicists, ‘you’ will be dust in a thousand years when Paris will still be lighting the world. Or some such.
But Morgan’s celebration of ‘blind fury’ is exactly that: blind.
‘Scumbag’ and ‘loser’ don’t describe Islamicist adversaries; they don’t throw light on the motives and modus operandi of ISIS, still less on how to respond to an enemy that lives not in a far off land but the sea in which we all swim. They’re just the lexicon of flagrant virtue.
Andrew Neil is paid a lot of money to create contexts in which pundits can think and share their thoughts. But that’s exactly what he didn’t do. He didn’t do thinking.
Rubbishing IS is as easy as raging against the Yorkshire Ripper or Hitler.
The Paris massacres were an opportunity to indulge in the joy of denigration and contempt, rather than the effort of the enlightenment he hails in his paean to Paris.
I was in France the weekend of the massacre, and here I am in England where we are all contemplating the implications. The mood in both countries isn’t ‘blind fury’, it is shock, fright, grave sadness.
While the mass media mocks opposition to the renewal of Britain’s Trident, it appears not to note:
The irrelevance of this cold war nuclear missile system to the new forms of warfare that for 30 years have generated killing fields;
The malign effect of Britain’s dangerous liaison with Saudi Arabia, the godfather of warfare across the region;
When Peter Stringfellow tells you that you are a ‘lovely lady’ you know that your are either in the wrong job, or the wrong conversation — or you are winning the argument.
We were debating on Sky News the decision by Playboy magazine to abandon nudes in its Spring 2016 revamp.
Stringfellow, the ‘sex entertainment’ entrepreneur, insisted that Playboy is merely modernising, moving to the internet where easy access to virtual sex and women is a most prolific and profitable form of traffic.
But Stringfellow and other commentators are missing something more interesting: We are in midst of a cultural revolution.
Lad mag circulations have been diving, several have closed, and the publishers’ own research reveals that there is more to this than men switching from print to the web.
Among millions of men, it seems, their taste for sexism has faded.
Stringfellow and friends may hate to admit it — and the porn traffic in on the web may contra-indicate — but the readers confirm that the debate about sexual objectification of women isn’t just a joust between men and women it is an argument between men.
When Playboy, the daddy of them all, announced in September 2015 that there would no nude women in its re-launch in the Spring of 2016, we know now, if we did not know before, that we are indeed in the midst of a cultural revolution.
Playboy’s survival as a magazine depends on moving online. Most of its income is generated by the logo — a bunny to brand handbags and sportswear.
But if the magazine that gave birth to that bunny in 1953 is to staunch terminal decline it has make some accommodation with social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and that means putting clothes on.
Social media are not sexism-free spaces — but they are sites where it is contested, and they are sites inhabited by women and men.
In August 2014 Playboy’s website dispensed with nudity: the average age of its readers dropped from 47 to just over 30, and its web traffic jumped to about 16 million from about four million unique users per month.
In Britain, the lad mags that proliferated in the 1990s — when it was so right on to be right off — had already peaked by the end of the decade. Less than 20 years after they arrived in the shops, three of the biggest-sellers, Loaded, Maxim and Nuts had been closed.
Holly Baxter, Vagenda co-founder, reckons that it isn’t only online porn that’s wounded the lad mags, nor the successful campaigns to persuade retailers — markedly the Co-op — to get lad mags off the shelves.
“Loaded, Maxim and Nuts — all closed down — because they ‘represent an ideology which has become markedly unpopular. “Laddishness” is dying out; the whole concept has become desperately uncool. Even mainstream online porn has been shifting to focus on shared pleasure rather than straightforward female objectification.”
Over optimistic I fear. In 2015 Esquire editor Alex Bilmes got himself into bother with his nearest and dearest and women in general for insisting that Esquire used women for ornamental purposes.
After his ‘ornamental’ comment made at a media conference made him a bit notorious, he explained: He puts women in the magazine because they are interesting, have cultural currency, and they’re hot.
“But most of all, we wonder: is she hot? Will our readers agree that she’s hot? Ornamental, see? “
He admits though that Lena Dunham, New York creator of the hit HBO series Girls, “is a brilliant, brazen, necessary corrective to that.” He’d want to watch her show, but not see her on his mag’s cover.
“It’s not my job to provide positive role models for young women, or to challenge the homogeneity of representations of young women in the media. I’m a men’s magazine editor. I supply entertainment for men. “
But the Playboy decision also shows that she is on to something — men who like sexualised sexism have somewhere else to go; and men who don’t are doing something about their distaste: they’re just not buying it.
Unlike lad mags, Men’s Health and Shortlist — men’s mags that don’t do sexualised sexism —aren’t in decline.
Former Nuts editor, Phil Hilton, was invited to join the launch of Shortlist in 2007. Up to then, he’d been “locked in a ferocious newsstand battle for three years in which the biggest single factor in winning readers was women, without clothes, on the cover, every week.”
Now, the notion of a free mag felt liberating: if the publisher didn’t have to worry about men buying it, they could change the content, they could even put men on the cover. In his launch diary, he wrote that they could:
“Produce a title that appeals to the best instincts of all those prosperous grown-ups who don’t even browse the newsstand anymore. I’m excited.”
Stuff, a gadget magazine for young men, always had women on its covers. Now it is concentrating on what the magazine is really about, gadgets. This followed the magazine’s research into readers’ responses to ‘girl’ and ‘non-girl’ covers. For several months last year the publisher put non-girl covers into four regions: sales were higher than girl covers.
Rachael Prasher, Stuff publishing director, said the decision by the owner, Haymarket Media Group, to go non-girl “is based on what our audience have told us through focus groups and cover trials, there is no question that it feels like the right decision to make.” Stuff editor in chief, Will Findlater, adds that their market research showed that if using women to sell gadgets once worked — did it? — it doesn’t now: Stuff readers are “united by their passion for technology — and nothing else.”
So, Stringfellow and his comrades think they have their finger on the pulse of men. But they haven’t registered the zeitgeist: that feminist pressure on the Murdoch empire and the retailers, No More Page 3 and Lose the Lads Mags have had an impact.
And the publishers’ own research on their readers tells them that its not just women who don’t like sexualised sexism, its men, too: this isn’t just an historic debate between women and men but between men, about women and what it means to be a man.
FOR A DAY in July 2014, the advocates of children in care institutions who have been sexually abused by adults — including suspects shielded from scrutiny by the Establishment — tasted triumph: their campaign for an inquiry into historic abuse and cover-up had finally been rewarded, there was to be a public inquiry.
Then the government appointed a retired judge, Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, to lead the inquiry. The campaigners tasted defeat.
A woman of integrity, said her supporters. Yes, a member of the Establishment, but an honourable woman, well-placed because of her judicial inquiry into a child abuse in the county of Cleveland in the north east of England in 1987.
I wrote a book about the Cleveland crisis, the Butler-Sloss judicial inquiry and the consequences. My only encounter with her was when I asked her permission allowed to interview witnesses to her tribunal. After I’d submitted to her the stories written for the New Statesman, she agreed, on condition, of course, that my book would follow publication of her report.
Day by day after her appointment to head up a new inquiry, worrying evidence billowed around her — and not just because she is a quintessential Establishment figure charged with investigating the Establishment’s cover up of sexual crimes against children, but because her brother, Sir Michael Havers, was Attorney General in the 1980s, under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and allegedly implicated in cover-ups.
Oh no, nothing to do with me, she protested.
Baroness Butler-Sloss (Photo: PA)
Then, on 11th July 2014, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme broadcast a report on Butler-Sloss, including a recording of a marvellous moment: a speech she made in 2003 at Gresham College in the City of London.
She gave a light-hearted insight into the Establishment modus operandi when Gresham Professor of Law, Richard Susskind, asked her: “Who instigated the inquiry? How does such an inquiry get set up?”
“I think it was my brother actually as Lord Chancellor,” she said.
“So the Prime Minister wanted somebody and my brother said it probably would be politic because there was some Marxist Leninist feminine…feminism area on there. The social worker had some strong views and there was a certain element of women against men.
“And so I think my brother said ‘well I think you’d better have a woman judge’ and there were only three women judges and by a process, I have to tell you, of elimination — because the other two were not available — I found myself doing it.”
This was simultaneously a laugh-out-loud moment — her exquisite difficulty with the f-word — and a bomb.
The Establishment recruited a woman to do in women in the child health and welfare professions at a radical moment in the history of childhood and protection from adversity and abuse. Thereafter, Butler-Sloss reserved her ire for the women in this case — seemingly impossible women, fortified with authority and knowledge; women who just would not yield, witches; women who mesmerised and discombobulated men, women who created professional alliances with men, women who weren’t afraid of men, of staring abuse in the face…’feminine’ and ‘feminist’ women, whatever…
Now we know.
That crisis was, of course, thoroughly gendered — but not for the reasons proposed by Butler-Sloss, not because there was a ‘women against men element…’
The crisis was something to do with men: men who buggered little children; physical signs on the bodies of children whose average age was six, suggested penetrative abuse; And a police force that refused to investigate suspected crimes against children.
By 12th July 2014, neither the government nor Butler-Sloss could cling on. She withdrew. Her demise takes our gaze beyond the horizon of the elite gene pool: it was not just her dynastic connection to the Establishment that offended people; it was her brother’s role in alleged cover-ups that went all the way to the top; that involved not only the elite but the security services.
And the problem was her way of doing business: Her Cleveland report, published in 1988, was a defining moment: it framed the terms of engagement thereafter between the state, professionals and children suffering sexual oppression. It set the template for how those who are not victims or abusers may come to some understanding: it isn’t possible unless you open your eyes and ears to survivors, or those who work with them.
Her report was compromised by Establishment guile and bad faith. This doesn’t mean she was a bad woman, or a corrupt woman, it merely means she was unavailable to challenge the status quo, to learn or to listen to people with less power — always very hard for an Establishment person.
Ultimately what was more important than anything else, it appeared, was to have and to hold a myth.
In the millions of words published in her Cleveland report, two stand out: she accused doctors seeing signs of abuse of refusing to ‘suspend belief’.
Ever since then, health, welfare and criminal justice professionals — together with society in general — have been obliged to suspend belief.
Meanwhile, here is an extract from the 1997 edition:
ONE MORNING early in the summer of 1987 a story appeared on the front page of a national newspaper, which didn’t make sense. The story ran and ran and ran, measuring more column inches than any other single saga that year – and yet the story went on not making sense. Nevertheless, it became a defining moment in the British state’s response to childhood adversity.
This was the Cleveland case, the story of 121 ‘innocent’ children being snatched from their ‘innocent’ parents by practitioners perceived as witchdoctors so suspicious of sexual abuse that they saw signs of it everywhere – including in children’s bottoms. ‘Innocence’ itself became an actor in this drama, an impersonator, disturbing the safe categories of victim and culprit, which had shaped the statutory services in the image of Freudian fantasy: after all, sex doesn’t happen to children – unless they incite it. And sex doesn’t happen in bottoms. Unless you’re queer.
These fundamental principles of sexual ideology were confounded in the Cleveland case: the ghost of budding Lolitas inciting incontinent men was undermined by the average age of the Cleveland cohort: six. And the orthodoxy of the orifice was shaken by the evidence that a baby in a buggy, with a very sore bottom, was being buggered by her father.
The Cleveland case challenged our world view about sex. It also became a crisis of knowing, of what is known and how it may become knowable. As the months and then the years went by, we were not allowed to know what had happened in Cleveland.
Just as there was a determined not-knowing in 1987, there was equal resistance to any attempt to follow up those 121 children, and reluctance to co-ordinate referrals. Some children did return to the attention of the statutory services. Some children did go on enduring abuse by adults who – having been acquitted by the public debate – had permission to carry on…
The government, suddenly that summer, announced a judicial inquiry, not into the phenomenon but into the response to it…
The inquiry conspicuously evaded the questions on everyone’s lips: ‘what has happened to these children? What brought them to the attention of the statutory services? What do the signs scripted across their bodies mean?
The government guaranteed that these questions would not be asked or answered.
In cases of alleged sexual abuse there has always been something more important than knowing – and that is not knowing.
I am abashed at what we thought was controversial.
For example, the first edition of this book contains an interview with a man and a woman whose children all showed worrying symptoms. The father was already a convicted sex offender. He was candid: yes, he had ‘previous’; yes, he’d confessed and then retracted. His explanation for anal and vaginal medical signs? He didn’t have one. I didn’t believe his protestations, but I faithfully reported his story. And I didn’t ask why his career as a sex offender and his absurd alibis weren’t relevant.
If this case was deemed controversial, it was not because a convicted sex offender was given custody of his children. It was because Dr. Marietta Higgs’ diagnosis had ignited an investigation. If this case was controversial, it was not because the convicted sex offender made a confession — like his previous record, that didn’t matter.
It was as if Dr Higgs, not the man with convictions and a confession, had to be found guilty. Revisiting his case was a revelation: what would now be interpreted as a significant — convictions and a confession — were then irrelevant; they were put to one side and made to not matter. Since then, he has been the subject of a new investigation – based, this time, not on signs but on a story of sexual abuse.
During 1987 the civil courts were pre-empting the outcome of the judicial inquiry by throwing out many of the local authority’s applications. The Butler Sloss inquiry’s report did not criticise the dismissal of these applications.
So, although the government acted as though nothing had happened, it read her report knowing that something had indeed happened to many, if not most, of the children.
What did they know? That the signs scrolled on the bodies of children suggested serious sexual abuse. They also knew that, if the children had indeed been abused, then the signs were telling us something more – that the children were so marooned in their abusers’ needs and pressure and point of view that silence was itself a survival strategy. A tactic of accommodation was revealed by the signs: the architecture of the body suggested the anatomy of adaptation, of small bodies adapting to overwhelming intrusion, orifices scarred and altered by incoming objects, orifices speaking into the silence of their young subjects.
Not all the children were silent. Some spoke loudly and clearly. Some spoke obliquely and hesitantly. But the adult community chose to interpret the silence — rather than the signs — as the relief of suspicion, rather than as a clue to the difficulty of disclosure. Instead of interpreting the matrix of signs and silence as a dynamic, as a drama of physical suffering and survival shrouded by secrecy, it chose an interpretation of this eerie scenario that reinstated the ideologies and institutions that were so stiffly challenged by these children.
Thereafter, a determination to act as if it did not know what had happened to the Cleveland children defined the disposition of the government. The ‘top men’, the medical and legal establishment gossiped over cocktails and confided to each other that well, yes, those doctors probably got it right…
When the judicial panel inquired into the response by professionals it never investigated perpetrators — the absent presence in the whole debate. Experts who worked with perpetrators were shunned. The only evidence the inquiry heard about alleged abusers came from an American advocate for the accused, Ralph Underwager, an itinerant ‘expert witness’ who specialised in giving evidence on behalf of defendants, whose confidence in the campaign to discredit children’s evidence of abuse prompted him to pronounce only five years later that paedophiles should proudly proclaim their sexual desire for children as the will of God.
The government and the inquiry report never asked or answered the question: What do we do to protect endangered children when the children themselves do not, or cannot, protest? Just as silence as a strategy, as a source of agency amid calamities that did not originate with the child, was not assimilated, neither was the weight of children’s fear, nor their dissociation as another survival strategy to protect themselves from chronic, extreme pain. Far from learning from the children’s difficulties, the government’s procedures actually relied upon them, regulating even more intensely the limits upon the space and time available to children to begin to speak. That is the scandal.
In 1987 the Department of Health was already well aware of all this and more. When it set up the judicial inquiry, the Department, social services staff and the police were themselves already addressing a different difficulty: how to help children who had a complaint to make. All over the country statutory services were struggling with the same things; how to help children who were speaking, protesting, to get justice; how to listen, gather evidence, consolidate a case, and protect children in danger; how to help doctors become definite instead of defensive; how to help the child psychiatric services embrace the possibility of an external event.
The typical difficulty for child protection workers was the absence of medical signs to corroborate strong stories that rarely survived the rough journey to the criminal courts. Here were physical signs that had been regarded as forensic gold. If the revelation of Cleveland was the closed circuit of strong signs and silence (although we must never forget that some of the Cleveland children did speak), then the inquiry’s shift from the signs to the silence was an intimation of collusive cynicism – once the argument about the signs was settled, the inquiry turned its mind not to the question of silence, but to how to patrol the possibility that children might speak.
Procedures, according to one child protection specialist, were designed to police the professionals and to control the conditions in which children might speak.
Those with an investment in silence, accused adults — sometimes parents — appeared as the victims of a new contagion: system abuse. And the arrangements created in the aftermath gave even convicted sex offenders the right to participate in planning the futures of the very children they had oppressed. ‘The fact that they were parents was more important than anything,’ said the specialist. ‘When I saw the list of participants at a case conference and read that minutes were to be sent to the father in prison, and that the Governor was to be approached to invite him to the next meeting, I knew it was all finished, particularly for his children who were terrified every night they went to bed that he’d come and get them again. Of course, they were right. The procedures ensured that he would.’ That is the codicil to Cleveland’s bequest to British children.
The first edition of this book was written during the controversy, when anger was directed not at alleged abusers but at children’s advocates.
Now, I wonder why. And I wonder why, like most other people, I reserved my restless discomfort for the people who had decided to do something about the evidence before their eyes. That disposition did not mute a critique of the outrageous mutiny by the police, the most masculinised public serve, who seemed to abandon their duty to investigate and to co-operate with their colleagues. They were the detonators, but their behaviour never aroused anger. Was that because Britain was already pessimistic about the police, the one agency that cannot be called to account? The report’s criticism of the police didn’t matter: no one noticed; no one was disciplined. But, nevertheless, that discomfort still lies like permafrost across the enduring controversies about child abuse. We still think nothing happened. We’re still angry with the wrong people.
I talked to child protection professionals and members of survivors’ movements elsewhere in Britain and in Ireland. They weren’t surprised by the signs that were so contested in this case – they’d already encountered them. They weren’t surprised by the combustion, either, because professional conflicts and political panic were endemic to sexual crime.
Now I understand the meaning of the meeting in 1987 initiated by child protection workers in Nottingham, West Yorkshire and the West Midlands, who were trying to tell politicians that the scale and seriousness of the problem were straining their resources, too. They were also asking: ‘What are we supposed to do about this?’ Why weren’t people like this invited to the inquiry?
When Elizabeth Butler-Sloss reported that she had no reason to doubt the medical signs, professionals and the public could reasonably infer that the doctors might have been right. But that would have been wrong, because the message inferred by some from that report was that it didn’t matter. Those doctors had – with the arrogance of innocence – blown the whistle. They thought their suspicions of abuse that imperiled the well being of their patients might have mattered.
They were wrong. What mattered more was that the sovereignty of services built on an acceptable level of abuse was retrieved. I did not understand that then.
Confidential documents (never acknowledged by the Department of Health) confirm what was only coded at the time: that the government and the health authorities had reason to believe that the doctors were probably right, but that no one would be allowed to know. That is the scandal.
Odd, isn’t it, that sexism is indulged as just silly? That’s how it seemed in my conversation on Radio 5 Live this week Richard Scudamore’s sexist correspondence with colleagues who run the elite pantheon of football. Scudamore’s Premier League mates decided against any further disciplinary action. Scudamore himself said he would do his utmost to support women in the game. And we will await with interest news about just what he, and the league, propose to do to kick sexism out of the league — and, in particular, out of Scudamore’s conversations with his colleagues.
The worry is that the Premier League and Scudamore will ride the row, feel furious, appear contrite, and do nothing. They will enjoy the indulgence of those who reckon the row itself is silly, like sexism is, well, just silly.
His friends — including senior women in the game, have rallied: he’s not sexist, they say. So why did he not only tolerate but participate in sexist talk? They seem to live in a capsule sequestered from the great changes shaking the world. They need to get out more and see what the rest of us see. How else will they help Scudamore as a person and as a professional sort out the institutionalized sexism in football?
The usually witty, cuddly and clever journalist Matthew Norman reckoned the row about sexism in football prompted by the exposure of Scudamore’s horrible correspondence was concerned with stuff that was just ‘witless’ and ‘silly’. He wrote in the Daily Telegraph that Scudamore was just being a Neanderthal pillock. Oh, we are obliged to reply, that’s all right then. Furthermore, this was ‘private’ correspondence.
This notion of the ‘private’ is a dodgy alibi: What’s private about writing this stuff at work, in work time? On the Premier League’s email? To colleagues concerned with the business of the Premier League? About female colleagues in that business? In emails that his PA — another colleague — is required to read as part of her duties?
The former PA, Rani Abraham, who revealed this sexist stream of unconconsciousness to the Daily Mirror – and risked her own professional life – reminds us, however, that there is no such thing as private when you are in your professional/public function, when you are Richard Scudamore, the boss of a business at the heart of national culture, when the stream of sexism runs through your public/professional function.
Scudamore, after all, runs the corporate elite of British football. There are 20 top clubs in his business. He and they have some responsibility for the ethos of an industry from which they profit, and which they have pitched at the heart of popular culture.
Football culture has been a notorious proponent of prejudices of which UKIP would be proud. But it is not a homogenous blob – there are football fans that don’t want the beautiful game to be associated with sexist, racist, capitalist crap. They’ve launched campaigns for cultural revolution that are about more than being nice to women or black people, that are about a different ethos of masculinities being made in the football universe.
But the recidivists profit from reform whilst laying hold of any old excuse to do nothing. At first the FA whimpered that this was a Premier League row, beyond the remit of the FA. Well, maybe this is the time for the FA to find a voice and a brain, and rediscover its power in the game.
Matthew Norman suggested in our conversation of Radio 5 Live that the row needed a ‘bit of nuance’. Well, what would be more nuanced than the clarifications that emerged in the week after the revelations?
At the beginning, commentaries circulated around misconceptions: the idea of ‘private’, the problem of FA or Premier League jurisdiction and responsibility. Now the debate has aired the relation between public and private: there was nothing private about Scudamore’s correspondence, it was professional, conducted in his professional milieu, about other professionals. It wasn’t even secret — Scudamore’s PA was required to read his correspondence so that she could manage his life for him.
We’ve learned something about sexism, too: it is no longer the zeitgeist: from Sports ministers, to football bosses, to campaigners trying to reform its culture – from Kick it Out to Women in Football – to the commentariat and you and me, we’ve learned that a lot of people think sexism isn’t silly.
Prime Minister David Cameron didn’t think it was silly — he told Radio 5 Live on Monday that such correspondence among ministerial colleagues would be a sacking offence. Matthew Norman agreed that ‘the sooner they change the better’ but he didn’t offer any suggestions about how; and — as a football fan — didn’t take responsibility for making that happen. All these big, powerful men, just being silly, eh? But the silly alibi doesn’t address just how these men might stop being silly (and sexist and racist); it doesn’t take responsibility for change. We used to send children down the mines. Now we don’t. Change happened — but it didn’t just happen. People made it happen. And that’s why the response to Ms Abraham’s revelations is a contribution to change: she showed us what these men really think of women. She has, therefore, given the people who have some power in football a gift to effect change.
Vogue Italia finds itself in an imbroglio about violence against women.
Every year editor Franca Sozzani attempts a ‘political’ spread. She is alert to the ambiguities of the fashion industry and tries to lend her resources of her 100,000-circulation magazine to a progressive theme.
So far, so noble. She tells The Independent:
I think about not what could make the magazine different, but what could make a good issue, that people will remember. Anyway, I’m using fashion! I’m using what everybody else is using. I’m more or less using the same girls that everybody’s using. I’m very politically correct in this way, but in the other way, I feel that we can use fashion in a different way.
The controversy is less to do with the fact of Vogue doing violence against women, more to do with whether it can do it, whether the magazine has pulled it off.
Sozzani has explained her commitment to the project, it is ‘our civic duty’ she writes, ‘to convey a message against barbarism.’ She has expressed her alarm at the statistics showing that two women are killed every week in Italy — the same statistic as the UK.
Sozzani herself has said that when she considered the concept, ‘the idea was cinematic’. This, then, was a genre shoot.
But did she pull it off? Could women who, she writes, are suffering, ‘feel our nearness’?
Having registered how young people relish the horror movie genre, she writes that the death rate from domestic violence ‘is really a horror show.’
But of course it isn’t a show. And that’s a clue to the problem with the spread: it is defined by form, by cinematic allusion and the codes genre, but not the content of violence against — the cultures that sponsor men’s domination and defeat of women.
The spread doesn’t show the relationship so much as it rehearses the mis en scene that saturates popular cultures of violence. It doesn’t rupture them, it repeats them.
That’s why Vogue Italia’s domestic violence spread is controversial: its message is overwhelmed by the medium — the pleasures of seeing the bodies of women, dead or alive, are repeated, again and again.