“A reactionary view of the part played by women in politics”

My previous post about Robert Peston blaming men for the financial crisis put me in mind of the second volume of Arthur Koestler’s autobiography, The Invisible Writing (1969), in particular a passage from the Portrait of the Author as a Comrade chapter (p43 of my Vintage Classics edition) in which Koestler disgustedly blames women for their political lassitude and neglect.

It was very hard to read this because I have always strongly identified with Koestler in his other many failings, and so derived encouragement from what he achieved in spite of them. But I could not identify with what follows. In its self-awareness, it seems like a betrayal of all he purported to stand for.

“The tricoteuses of the French Terror had found their successors in the Valkyries of the Hitler era. I used this opportunity to confess that I have always held a reactionary view of the part played by women in politics. Taking history as a whole, female interference in matters of State seems to add up to a rather nefarious balance.”

For pity’s sake, man, don’t let yourself down any further. He continues:

“The male tyrants of history are on the whole cancelled out by an equal number of reformers…”

This is a good message for Robert Peston. If only Koestler had stopped there:

“…but where are the humanists to compensate for the long series of monsters, from Messalina to Catherine the Great, to Irma Griese of Buchenwald? There are countless books for boys about great men, and no books for girls about great women…”

Role models are very important, for sure. At the Rodchenko and Popova exhibition at Tate Modern, I was struck by the contrast between the self-disclosure of this man and woman passionately involved in the same movement. Rodchenko chronicled himself abundantly; of Popova we know little. I’m not sure why, but maybe it’s related to how, for centuries, society preached selflessness as a female virtue, a principle component of which was not to seek attention for oneself (for other historical female virtues, see Barbara Taylor’s RSA mag piece, to which I linked in my previous. None involves driving through social changes). Under these circumstances, self-esteem among women was surely in short supply. Nevertheless, here is one list of women social reformers which is both substantial and incomplete. And another. How could Koestler be so selectively blind?

More:

“…yet an anthology about the harpies who left their imprint on history would be an international best-seller. I am talking of women who took a direct hand in politics; their indirect influence via their husbands is a different problem altogether – though even here it seems that they have acted on the whole more as catalysts of ambition than as neutralisers of aggression.”

This old canard – that women, like Eve and Lady MacBeth, manipulate men against the wider best interest – is emerging in some of the reactionary responses to Peston’s piece.

And this kind of thinking is, in a nutshell, why Koestler will never be thought of as one of the greats.



Blaming men for the financial crisis

Matt directs me to Robert Peston, who begins his piece ‘Why men are to blame for the crunch‘:

“I routinely characterise the credit crunch as “men behaving badly” – because it’s almost impossible to find a woman to blame.”

He trepidatiously stops short of explicitly making a cause out of a correlation, but nevertheless ends with:

“But if we’re looking to prevent a repetition of the kind of financial calamity we’ve just endured, it mightn’t be a bad start to appoint a woman as chief executive of Citigroup (or HSBC), or as chancellor of the exchequer or even (heaven forfend) as governor of the Bank of England …”

Below are some reasons not to go down this route.

It is false to attribute to financial crisis to biological maleness. Peston’s reference to chromosomes may have been a literary device, but I’m inclined to make more of it. Nobody serious seeks to deny that endocrinology and neurology can account for behaviour – although only to an extent, and an extent which remains poorly understood.  Given that anti-discrimination law exists to elevate humans above this lottery of biology, to then propose ruling out job applicants on the basis of sex is hugely regressive (in the recruitment situation under discussion, sex is not by any stretch a genuine occupational qualification). Blaming men as men per se denies the diversity of men. For example, men belonging to the Awa tribe make a living by hunting and gathering and I can’t find anything to suggest they perceive a need for a currency. Clearly these men have had no part in the financial crisis, but if we blame men per se, I can’t see a way to avoid extrapolating our judgements about men in such a way that, in practice, they comprehend these men of the Awa. Yet Peston’s suggestion, which implies ruling men out of the recruitment process altogether, fundamentally contravenes local and international anti-discrimination law.

Robert Peston displays a readiness to analyse social ills in terms of the culpability of social groups. Jews and African American borrowers have also been blamed for the financial crisis, and in their case singling out a social group for blame is, or should be, a clear case of scape-goating. Less clear with men – men occupy most of the positions of power, and are never going to be marginalised and subjugated within society; therefore blame of men is far less likely to progress beyond the discourse stage than blame of Jews (see comment 23 on the Peston piece) or African American borrowers.However, discourse is important to how social groups relate to each other.

It is not unreasonable to view Peston’s suggestion in the same way one Icelandic government official did after the Icelandic government blithely swept away the notoriously “aggressive” male chief execs of two newly nationalised banks, and replaced them with women:

“Now the women are taking over,” said one government official. “It’s typical, the men make the mess and the women come in to clean it up.”

Certainly, crises are an opportunity to break down barriers but, what with the glass ceiling which confronts women in the financial sector, isn’t it a bit glass cliff to embrace a strategy of recruiting women in a crisis of this magnitude? (Not that I’m suggesting women should decline to get involved.)

Peston doesn’t go into the qualities of women, and I think it would be unfair to call his proposal reverse sexism. However, read Barbara Taylor’s RSA mag piece on the history of female archetypes and follow her to the conclusion that women per se are not the answer to our current economic problems.

I’m afraid Robert Peston here presents himself as the kind of feminist who stands up for women by blaming men. I can’t think of any case where this kitsch feminism, which simply flips the prejudice on its head, has helped women.

By way of comparison, have a look at Women Capital who are pursuing (although they do not explicitly articulate it) a genuinely anti-sexist diversity agenda for top management positions.

Update – Matt directs me to some of the other comments in Robert Peston’s post. Eddixon:

“You say that women are not connected at all with the decisions that led to the credit crunch, but I have yet to meet one that didn’t push their husband into looking at a more expensive house, thereby taking a bigger mortgage etc etc!”

Women as complicit bloodsuckers.

And Yottskry:

“Ahhh yes, it’s all the fault of men.

Apart from those women who racked up huge credit card debts while the going was seemingly good and who (as much as the men) bought to let with mortgages they can no longer afford. And so on.

If you look away from the very top, you’ll find women do indeed share a portion of the blame.”

Women credit card debt racker-uppers as somehow different from men credit card debt racker-uppers, in keeping with Peston’s essentialisation of city workers according to their maleness.

Mehdi Hasan fits in at the New Statesman. Richard Herring is no racist.

Aka: the decline of British left papers and mags.

Taking a break from collecting reasons to back Vestas, I see that the knives are out for Harry’s Place again, this time with the New Statesman’s new senior political editor Mehdi Hasan as the pretext.

Sunny Hundal of Pickled Politics, iEngage, the SWP are pushing the view that Harry’s Place is virulently racist. Harry’s Place bloggers aren’t racist. Racists are, nevertheless, attracted to comment there. I think I see a relative of mine who is Islamophobic constructing careful arguments under the posts. For some time, Harry’s Place hosted overtly racist comments in the name of free speech. They hoped to that other commenters would refute them. These days they are moderating, for the reasons Marko outlined, and making welcome and, I think, successful efforts to distinguish their political antipathy to political Islam from anti-Muslim bigotry. Harry’s Place is a basically responsible blog.

Next, defend the winningly revolting comedian Richard Herring, whose podcast with Andrew Collings the Guardian lists as number 7 in its top ten comedy podcasts (update – and to which I’m a not-infrequent listener) from what amount to allegations of racism by Guardian writer Brian Logan. Herring pulls stunts like telling his audience that anybody who votes BNP should have their vote withdrawn – and when they whoop and clap, asks them whether they aren’t being just a bit fascist themselves. Herring takes apart the opinions of racists by asking his audience whether they might have a point and proceeding to creatively communicate that they do not. He sails close to the wind, but Richard Herring leaves nothing open to racist interpretation. Richard Herring is a responsible comedian. Leave him alone. Defend him. Here he is defending himself. Guardian readers and writers rally. Dave Gorman. Andrew Collings. Charlie Brooker. And more.

The Guardian has been nurturing the form of anti-Jewish racism which hides under anti-Zionism for some years. Seven Jewish Children, for example, was viewed by a number of credible people as an exercise in pathologising and discrediting Jewish (explicitly Jewish, rather than Israeli, which would have been bad enough) parents. And now here’s The Guardian allowing a columnist to stick the knife into an anti-racist like Herring in this way. It’s a topsy turvy world. Sometimes I feel a bit queasy.

Catching up

You go away, completely unconnected, and when you get back it quickly becomes clear that in Iran, Honduras, Sri Lanka and many other places there has been no respite, no let up, no holidays in rural Wales.

For Iran, see Kellie and Modernity links to an account of the vigil for Iran in Boston.

Greg Weeks, the Latin Americanist Charlotte NC academic upon whom I have mostly relied for unbiased Honduras commentary, links to Honduras Coup 2009, a blog of:

“Responses to the Coup d’etat in Honduras on Sunday June 28, with special emphasis on producing English-language versions of commentaries by Honduran scholars and editorial writers and addressing the confusion encouraged by lack of basic knowledge about Honduras.”

In particular there is a translation of the San Jose Accord, a promising statement of mysterious origin, pledging support for a government of national unity. Also a communique from the Honduran armed forces which reaffirms support for the constitution, and the San Jose Accord. There is commentary, to the effect that the coup is cracking despite Micheletti’s bombast.

I also hope to find time to read the primer on Honduran politics.

I would like to write more on Roma in Prague and on Tamil refugees in Sri Lanka, but it’s nearly bedtime.

Because nothing is a no brainer, currently looking for unbiased commentary and analysis on the closure of the Vesta wind turbine factory in the Isle of Wight. Yes, vox-pops. Yes, testimonies. Yes, ideals. But as well as these, please, can’t we also have the facts?

Seven loveable things

Bob victimised me with the Seven Loveable Things meme. Here are my loveable things.

  1. Matt. I have never met anybody like him, who goons around but has a black box for a brain, who is extremely ambitious but has nothing to prove at anybody’s expense, who is both wiley and kind to everybody, slobbish and dedicated, a supremely relaxed organiser, accommodating but not a pleaser. In appearance Matt is a medium-sized bear or lion. He wolfs down book after book like one of the big dogs he grew up with, neglecting to chew half the words. He is intelligent, thoughtful, intellectual, not academic. He is cheeky to authority – and friends’ mothers. He suffers fools grudgingly and is completely free of spite. He’s an intrepid cook. He likes feats of endurance, and he’s not macho.
  2. Certain people I spend a lot of time with, piss off and am pissed off by, know like the back of my hand and will always know and love, often crossly.
  3. Cheatingly, I’ll lump together physical nature: being in the sea where there are waves and swell, and ideally rock pools, sand, shells, cliffs, a promenade, and a harbour to look at; mountain tops off the beaten track when you realise that you are a speck existing as you do only by the ingenuity and collective commitment of others (I like to feel lucky); places dark enough to see into the depths of the sky at night; Britain’s attenuated summer dusks; snow
  4. When paths cross. In remote locations when we go walking Matt and I have met some people we are wistful about to this day. The former tenant landlord and gliding enthusiast at Hesket Newmarket who met Hanna Reitsch. The miner-farmer waiting for his friend’s coffin in the pub at White Mill. The Welsh sheep farmer with hip replacements careening down the mountain side on his quad bike. The woman I stayed with during a conference in Baltimore who had me selling t-shirts at a gig by O’Malley’s March, the now 61st Baltimore governor’s Celtic rock band. It’s very poignant how such rich, dense lives can pass each other with the merest brush.
  5. Also like Bob, happy children – when they’re delighted or mentally tickled, when they’re playing together. Relatedly, watching the children you know grow, particularly if you love the parents. The children in my road make me smile – I hope they won’t outgrow me, although they probably will. On Sunday my friends’ little girl, of whom I’m legally a guardian, lay in the crook of my arm on our sofa while I occasionally pulled the string of our sycamore seagull mobile – it was magic
  6. Miraculous technologies that transcend distances, connect, document, cost their end-users less and less. The wondrous Internet. My new G1 phone; my netbook. And the social Web – YouTube, Flickr. And true gifts from open source developers – Audacity, GIMP. The superlative recorded lectures of the RSA and Gresham College. Open access journals.
  7. Walking – purposeful striding towards a destination many days’ distance away, and also roaming the metropolis.

I would, like Bob, say music but it’s no longer generally true – not sure why.

These are less loveable things than things to revere, so I’m going with Martin’s approach and listing second order – sensual – things, because you can roll around in them much more comfortably*.

  1. Burrowing into bed on a winter weekday morning with Radio 4 on
  2. Pastry
  3. Syrup
  4. Chips
  5. Hammocks
  6. Long-distance outward journeys in a car full of friends
  7. Baby animals; their pratfalls and frisking
  8. Shallow, slate-bottomed Welsh mountain rivers on hot summer days when you’ve been walking far in your sandals and you don’t take the footbridge.
  9. Live music outside on balmy evenings
  10. Cuddling the babies of close friends
  11. Because it’s topical, when you have been walking all day in bad weather, sheltering in the kinds of places animals favour, and you are cold, wet, tired and pained, getting to a place with a bath and feeling your spirit unfurl like a butterfly out of a cocoon.
  12. Excellent vegan deserts such as Mrs Morpurgo’s chocolate-rasberry torte, or Manna’s chocolate fondant.
  13. Putting my face in Matt’s cheek-beard and gently turning my head from side to side (he won’t stand for this – interrupts me with “That’s enough!”).
  14. Intoxicants. The happiest I’ll every be (I reckon that is the sad physiological truth) was my first pill and the most I’ve ever laughed was the acid I took at my parent’s house while they were away when some of us decided to take the newspapers to the recycling. But I’m long done with funding people-traffickers and pimps, so – like Bob, maybe more so – I now prefer to get sloshed, crowy and excitable, and perhaps dance (and I never fight).
  15. Warm towels
  16. Spring foliage and sprouts

srr_aug09
I would be most interested to hear more on this subject from from Papanomicron, Peggy, the man who moved to San Diego, the man who moved to Dorset, the man who moved to PhiladelphiaSarah and the New Centrist – oh he’s done it, so in that case, the man who never blogged again.

*I am too prim to talk about carnal affairs but they should be there somewhere – count them in.

Wales in 9 days – Conwy to Carmarthen

9 days’ walking from Conwy at the top of Wales to Carmarthen more or less at the bottom.

The holiday was wet and set back by poor footpath maintenance, but very satisfying.

Here are some of the highlights.

The Hafod Hotel at Devil’s Bridge. Up in the eves of this enormous but very homey old coaching inn our large room had a window which looked out onto the gently steaming tree-filled gorge and the hills beyond. The room itself was very atmospheric, I can’t quite describe how – something to do with the dark, honest, old furnishings, floral prints of the curtains, wallpaper and bedspread, soft, gentle odours of the place, the light of a grey dusk, and the sound of the rain outside and the far off river crashing down over the rocks. I loved it. The staff were not only friendly, they were kind to the vegan and to the wet walkers. The owner made space available in the cupboard with the boiler and we dried our clothes. His daughter had shopped for me, and I had a number of sandwich fillings to choose from. They gave me the sandwich filling to take to the next place. I am deeply grateful. In the sitting room I read a 2003 farming notebook and Matt sat with three ancient books – British flowers, British moths and British birds. I would love to go back to the Hafod Hotel.

At Llangeitho we stayed at the Glanafon Guest House, one of two well turned-out en-suite dormer rooms in the immaculate home our proprietors built. Again, they were very friendly and welcoming and made us tea which we drank in their kitchen. They asked whether we liked dogs and when we said that we did, they let two out of the sitting room – they were lovely big dogs, full of comedy. One wanted to play with a rubber ring he refused to release; he and the other one conducted fierce playfights through the ground floor as long as somebody was looking. That night we could hear the river nearby. The food was good and attentive to the vegan, and the breakfast table was arranged for guests to look at the bird feeders, which were very busy.

Also a special mention for the warm and comfortable village pub in Llangeitho, the Three Horse Shoe. It was really good of the landlady to get in nut loaf especially. That was one of my favourite evening meals.

I really enjoyed our stay at Ivy House at Dolgellau. Again, they looked after the vegan, and the place was nostalgic, clean, deeply comfortable and honest. That morning a knowledgeable and understatedly humourous woman I presume was the owner came out of her kitchen and told us about some of the things we would encounter on our route.

It was too wet to use the camera much. This happens and you have to just shrug. But one time I was walking on a footbridge on what was supposed to be a bit of wet ground in a watermeadow by the Teifi, and it was half a metre under water. Another time one leg went down to the knee in a hidden bog, the other was sinking fast and if I had been on my own I’d have lost my sandals trying to get out. I’m not entirely confident I could have got out on my own. One sad lunch in the Ceredigion village of Bronant the pub was shut and the church locked – we ate our sandwiches huddled like sheep on the concrete under the rusted and leaking corrugated iron roof of the local shop. Another day the only shelter we could find was a remote sheep shearing shed on the slopes of Plynlimon, the massif which seems to stand between us and anywhere we want to go in Wales and which – source of the Wye and Severn – always soaks us. It soaked us again; this time we found the Rheidol ford near an abandoned farm where we ate lunch last time, but it was flowing forcefully, perishing cold and up to my behind.

Climbing Cader Idris from Dolgellau, ragged fingers of cloud threw out rain in front of us and behind us but not upon us. 200 metres from the top of Cader, which was out of our way, we met a man and his son who told us that the summit was “like being in a white bubble”. Not peak baggers, we decided to come down.

This all sounds dreadful, but it isn’t. Not that we planned for this, but I recommend making a long journey in remote places on foot in bad weather to fill you with appreciation for human achievement and a strong sense of your own wellbeing. You remember that roads – from Sarn Helen to the M1 – were created because of the need to make connections over wet ground. Made roads were some of our earliest networks. You remember that humans are very resourceful and enterprising creatures, and you love, and even marvel at, your waterproofs, OS maps, the bridges, your bed and the roof over your head. You feel fortunate about your food, and your beer. You feel practically joyful when you reach your destination each night. Matt and I are fortunate – we have more than we need. It’s good to confront yourself once in a while with the needs you have surpassed.

A few last things.

This time Wales felt like a foreign country. The language is formalised – my Machynlleth English friend’s daughter is on the Welsh track at school – she is taught in Welsh. Many young people from Conwy to Carmarthen were speaking in Welsh. Although we were obviously not Welsh (backpacking hikers in Wales are almost always not, and the English have always used Wales as their playground) some local people on the road addressed us initially in Welsh. I took this as gently making a point. Welsh is first and foremost a political and nationalist matter, I think. Thought maybe it is less rather than more archane to spell, phonetically, ‘ambiwlans’ instead of ‘ambulance’ and ‘egsost’ instead of ‘exhaust’. At any rate it has come to the stage now where next time I’m in Wales I think I will learn some courtesy phrases, and certainly greetings, in the language of the land as formalised by the democratically-elected Welsh Assembly.

I was afraid of the animals. I couldn’t read the dogs. A lot of the cats fled when I came near. A field of curious horses approached us at speed and followed us for a few hundred metres and I was nervous. Matt and I fought over a herd of cows with calves. Matt insisted on approaching them when they were in our way. They lurched, showed the whites of their eyes and looked poised to do something rapid – in the end they moved aside. This happened twice. On the second occasion I was so intent on creeping along the hedge that I stopped just short myself of trampling a dead new-born calf. Filled with horror and walking quickly for the end of that field I was close to the stile when a massive pale rock nearby twitched and flicked its tail. It raised a head with a gold-ringed nose. I was over the stile with some speed, noticing only when I got down that the gate between that field and the one I’d just left was open. It was fine. I think we were in some danger when the cows with calves were on our path and that we should have avoided them according to the countryside code, although Matt doesn’t. A few days later in Lampeter we read of the death of a poor woman, Anita Hinchey, charged and trampled by cows, the third such death in that month – these attacks are not such rare phenomena, although Matt is probably right when he points out that the people died because the cows reacted badly to the dogs. I’m glad, at least, that more are permitted to suckle their calves on pasture. This used to be a rare sight – the fact that it is less rare means there is a market for veal again. I wonder how they separate the calf and its mother before the death. Probably with dogs.

I buttoned my lip when one host (unmentioned above) held forth on the violence that wind turbines do to the landscape. When I look at the hills I see enclosed common land making prisons for animals and trespassers of people. It has only been this way since the industrial revolution. Almost everywhere in Wales human activity has carved up the hills. I think wind turbines are majestic, triumphant.

Wales in 10 days

We are walking from Conwy to Carmarthon and I’ve been doing the boring job of making little maps of where we are staying each night, to print on a sheet of A4 and take. This is easy to forget but very necessary when the addresses consist of a place and a postcode but no road name, a bit like this one:

09-19

We’ve stayed in places with fewer roads.

Packing list:

Kit

  • 30 litre pack
  • Waterproof pack liner
  • Map case
  • OS Explorer maps
  • Compass
  • Walking books
  • Poles
  • Penknife
  • space blanket
  • 2 water bottles
  • fire
  • bothy bag

Clothes

  • Pants
  • Socks
  • Walking boots
  • Sandles
  • Flip flops
  • Walking bra
  • Evening bra
  • Walking trousers
  • Evening trousers
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Walking t-shirt
  • Evening shirt
  • Fleece
  • Waterproof coat
  • Baseball cap
  • Gaiters

Electronics

  • MP3 player, earphones
  • GPS
  • Phone
  • Camera
  • Chargers: camera, phone, battery, USB charger adaptor
  • Rechargeable AA batteries for GPS
  • Wind-up torch/radio/charger with attachments
  • Watch

Health

  • Plasters
  • Antiseptic cream
  • First aid kit
  • Second skin blister dressing
  • Tea-tree oil
  • Painkillers
  • Energy: sweets, seeds, nuts, dried fruit
  • Vitamin supplements

Hygiene and vanity

  • Biodegradable wash for everything
  • Sun cream
  • Lip sun protection
  • Aloe vera gel
  • Contact lenses and solution
  • Glasses case
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Floss
  • Hair conditioner
  • Deodorant
  • Moisturiser
  • Hairband
  • Razor
  • Travel towel
  • Comb
  • Handkerchief
  • Eyeliner

Misc

  • A paperback
  • Cash
  • Credit cards
  • Cheque book
  • Printed contact details and detail maps of where we have booked to stay (put these on the web)
  • Receipts for deposits
  • Clear plastic bags, plastic bags for dirty stuff