Things I thought

Monday 9 January 2012

Maggie Thatcher, comin' atcha!

On Friday night I joined several of my more virulently radical comrades at a showing of Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady. The film split opinions amongst my our little gang of leftists. Perhaps this is predictable - any film about the perennial hate pin-up and sometime Prime-Minister was always going to be controversial. Yet I ended the night wondering why so many of my friends so disliked what was, at worst, a fairly harmless film.

The occasionally unseemly battle for Thatcher’s legacy has been in full swing since she left office, but undoubtedly found new legs when Gordon Brown tried to forestall allegations of sense by suggesting the old brute be treated to a state funeral. Since then the tug of war over how Thatcher should be remembered has become rather ill mannered on both sides. This film, by contrast, seeks to explore Thatcher as though this fierce contest did not exist: portraying her primarily as a frail old woman, her mind leaving her, consumed by visions of the past. The response has been predictable. Miners wives have formed pickets outside cinemas showing the flick, while the Prime-Minister himself has said that he believes that “this film is wrong at a time when Thatcher is still going on” (or something like that).*

Shortly after seeing it, I described the Iron Lady as “Downfall without the happy ending”. I wasn’t just doing this to wave an anti-Thatcher flag (though my anti-Thatcher flag is lovely and ripples beautifully when unfurled in the current political winds). While Thatcher is a more controversial and divisive figure than Adolf Hitler, both films seek to paint their protagonists as human, contrary to the instincts of the audience. Whether she is lionized or demonized, Thatcher is almost never seen as just a person, making flawed choices at the centre of a corrupt and compromised system.

A lot of us on the left would have enjoyed watching Thatcher portrayed as a bloody-fanged tyrant, warped with un-earned power. Such a portrayal would have reinforced our historic assumptions about her, but it would not have done much good beyond that. Thatcher the monster may be how we’d like her to be portrayed, but the sense of the superhuman that invokes serves our opponents, too. Great leaders (in either sense) must appear larger than their subjects. By robbing her of this quality, the film robs her of that which would excuse her more criminal behavior – from sinking the Belgrano, to letting Irish dissidents starve to death in her care.

In her life and career, Thatcher always sought to portray herself as above conventional criticism. This may be one of the factors that has allowed our rhetoric (in, for example, wishing death on an old woman) to surpass what is normally acceptable. If the person you are attacking is not truly human, what you say about them does not need to conform to human standards of decency. I have said abhorrent things about Thatcher (not more abhorrent than, say, threatening a nuclear strike on Argentina, but still) and felt entitled to do so, for this very reason. After watching this film, I wonder if that this natural approach is the right one.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should feel one iota of sympathy for the vile old bat. Indeed, seeing her losing her mind to one of the most unpleasant diseases imaginable only made me yearn even more for the moment she’ll be put out of her misery. Yet I’m reminded of the time, a little way into George Bush’s junior's second term, when a startling and terrifying revelation hit me. Of the two caricatures we had made of this reprehensible man – of a malevolent despot and a buffoon – only one was close to the truth. We truly had an idiot in charge of the free world. The moral judgment we were making of him were not relevant, as he did not have the capacity to be otherwise. Perhaps we should come to see Thatcher as the same – not evil, just catastrophically wrong – and save our energy for undoing the damage she’s done.

Friday 6 January 2012

The XXX Factor

For everything that is undeniably shit about now, we still live in an incredible age. A hundred years ago, in polite company, it was considered lude for a woman to show her ankles. Fifty years ago, in the UK, two men could be prosecuted and imprisoned for having consensual sex. Less than ten years ago, three or more men still couldn’t fuck without risking jail time, which must have been terribly awkward when it came time to decide who got to go first and who had to wait their turn in the corridor. Today, we live in a world where thousands of sexual sub-cultures flourish. We’ve gone from the love that dare not speak its name to a Britain where, no matter how awesomely obscure your fetish is, you can share and celebrate your sex with likeminded people online. People don't need to be alone any more - even the most inventive pervert can find people to share support, advice and bodily fluids with. Which is why the trial R v Peacock was an obscene relic of a bygone age.

The act on trial wasn’t sex. It was the depiction of sex. Obscenity laws over half a century old were wielded against a man who had the temerity to sell DVDs of adults consensually doing things which were not, themselves, illegal. It would be wrong to say that nobody was getting hurt – in many cases the whole object was to inflict pain in a manner that, when coupled with a careful combination of theatre and trust, would transmute itself into ecstasy for all the parties involved. Or, to put it more bluntly, the men were shoving their hands up each others arses, pissing in each others mouths and using each others inflated balls as punching bags, and having a brilliant time doing it.

I’ll happily admit that the detailed descriptions of these acts, tweeted from the courtroom, made me feel squeamish on several occasions. But so what? Each time I so much as hear about X Factor I’m overcome with a deep, nauseous sense of despair, but for some reason I can’t fathom, nobody ever suggests banning it. Which is odd as, if you live in Britain with functioning eyes, you’re pretty much forced to know about X Factor, but anal fisting mostly keeps itself to itself. If men were having their urethras dilated on the cover of More magazine, or the screams of men having their bollocks electrocuted was Christmas number one, I might understand the prosecution. Instead, Simon Cowell’s abomination (the show’s pre-production title) assaults me at every turn, while my first knowledge of Michael Peacock’s sex life came from his trial.

That graphic depictions of extreme sex had to be shared in order to try a man for sharing graphic depictions of extreme sex is, to say the least, ironic. Perhaps, under the circumstances, everyone involved in the case, including Peacock himself, should be immediately arrested if a verdict of guilty is delivered. Of course, the graphic descriptions of graphic descriptions required to try this new batch of obscenators would themselves be obscene and the resulting cascade of larger and larger trials would grow like a judicial version of The Blob, till every man, woman and child in Britain is being tried for obscenity.

Thankfully, that now looks unlikely (even more so, I mean). In the last few minutes, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. This will be a blessed relief for all decent human beings, and a blood vessel bursting nightmare for Daily Mail readers. Win-win.

Still, despite his acquittal, Michael Peacock has been severely punished for not committing a crime. The vagaries of the process itself – the soul-churning moment of arrest, the months of worry that followed, the endless meetings with lawyers (though the firm that represented him, Hodge Jones and Allen, are as awesome a group of people as you could ever hope to meet, and have gotten me out of a tight spot on more than one occasion) are all deeply stressful and costly events. These are standard ways the process punishes people, but in Peacock’s case they were coupled with revelations about his private life which must have been excruciating. Even the most vanilla of you probably wouldn’t want your mum hearing every detail of what you do in bed, particularly not if you were telling her from the dock. This may be why Peacock was the first person to plead not guilty and opt for a trial by jury, an act of heroism for which he will be derided in the press as a pervert. Sensible folks (that’s us) should now turn the spotlight round and ask the perennial question: what the fuck were the police playing at?

I can understand why the obscenity law remains on the statute: when penned in 1959 it was actually a liberalizing bill, and reducing but not eliminating the scope for what could be considered obscene must have seemed like common sense in a UK that had yet to witness the 60s. It has not been politically expedient to repeal or reform the bill since because, while the bulk of politicians behavior is obscene, publically calling for more obscenity has rarely won anyone an election. However, lots of laws are rarely, if ever, enforced. Even if I walked into Scotland Yard and confessed that I’d never picked up a bow in my life, I’d be more likely to be charged with wasting police time than failing to keep up with my mandatory archery practice.

So why spend police resources on Michael Peacock? His prosecution was no accident, police did not discover the obscenity while investigating a more heinous crime. Instead, a squad that exists specifically to bother people about their private lives targeted him by sending an undercover cop to buy his DVDs. Yet the police’s story doesn’t quite add up – they claim they came across Peacock’s services via Craigslist and decided to look into them, but the prosecution, by way of suggesting he set out to corrupt people, described his ad as offering “innocent” porn. Where, then, did the police get the idea that they should be sending officers into the home of a young gay man and looking for reasons to arrest him?

The not guilty verdict will hopefully discourage the police and CPS from future shenanigans, but with a dedicated “extreme pornography” squad looking to justify their budget, and many previous defendants choosing to plead guilty rather than have their fetishes publicized in a court room, one has to suspect that the nonsense will continue. The verdict today suggests that many of those previously convicted were effectively blackmailed into a guilty plea. While we’ll never know exactly how the jury made their deliberations, the fact they took less than two hours to consider their verdict suggests they sat down, said “well, this is fucking silly” and sent for the clerk.

Unlike some people, I believe obscenity exists and I believe the crown’s definition of "that which corrupts and depraves” is actually a good one. Like anything pleasurable, pornography can be addictive, and addiction corrupts anyone afflicted by it. Depravity, to me, is treating people like objects, and pornography surely can do that too. Yet the law is obsessed with depravity only when it is also erotic, and seeks to protect only our sexual morals from corruption. When people bay for the blood of strangers, or debase themselves for a moment of fame, the state stays curiously silent.

In other words, if we're going to ban people from watching things that we think are weird and bad for them then, please, for the sake of my sanity, let's start with the fucking X Factor, and let people cum in peace.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Pride and Privilege

Yesterday I displayed my talent for sticking not only my foot but my entire shin and part of my upper thigh in my mouth by going on Twitter and implying that I thought having an abortion was a privilege. Give the last few words in that sentence a read back just so you can get a feel for how much of a preposterous bellend I must have seemed. Those weren’t the words I used but, in bursts of under 140 characters, I gave a lot of people the impression that’s what I thought. I’m not going to pick through every tweet that made up the back and forth (because it would be boring and petty and take forever, and I don’t think that the people I offended or who offended me necessarily want to be namechecked). Instead, here’s what I was trying to say.

First, having to decide what to do about an unwanted pregnancy is an experience that could range from inconvenient to soul-destroying, but it’s never going to be good. Even so, I think that having that choice is a privilege. It’s not a privilege like going to Eton or owning a fancy hat, both of which are reportedly fun. It’s the kind of privilege where you have something other people don’t and, if it doesn’t make your life better, it at least makes it less bad. I have lots of privileges - from my race, my gender, my class and the various intricacies of my circumstances. My situation is not one to complain about, and I’m not. That said, the fact remains that having that level of reproductive autonomy is a privilege I don’t have.

Usually my instinct when I think of the few ways that the hand I’ve been dealt doesn’t play well is to shut up about them. To do otherwise is like whining that your Ferrari doesn’t handle well once you get it over 90. This time I made an exception for a few reasons. For a start, we were discussing why men should take safe sex seriously, and so I pointed out (in words much less well chosen than the ones I’m about to use) that the moment of intercourse is the only time a man gets to exercise his reproductive autonomy. In some ways, I argued, it makes the pregnancy-related risks of unprotected sex greater for men than for women. Obviously, those ways don’t include the physical risks of bearing a child, and the psychological impact of a termination is never going to be as great for someone who doesn’t have to experience the procedure themselves. But for men, unsafe sex is an all-or-nothing gamble. Yes, your sexual partner might make the same choice you would have. Or they might not. Either way, it isn’t up to you, and you could become a parent (or be party to an abortion) against your will.

The idea that becoming a parent might be a big deal for men was a problematic one for some people. Men, I was told repeatedly, can just walk away. That women have the same option (after birth) but instead largely choose termination instead was a fact left absent from the debate. Some women will choose abortion because as well as not wanting a child, they don’t want a pregnancy either, particularly as pregnancy might create societal or psychological pressures that would make it harder to “walk away”, perhaps even too hard to manage. Surely another reason women choose termination is that they don’t want to create a person who they can’t look after. They don’t want to accidentally give someone a bad life, they don’t want the emotional trauma of never knowing what happened to the person they weren’t there for and they don’t want to always wonder if they’ll, somehow, walk back into their lives with all kinds of fair but impossible questions to ask. That men, as well as women, might not want these things was not a concept the debate entertained. In fact, the only reference that was made to men’s responsibilities as parents concerned child support – which men get away without paying. At one point, I was told, that if a man didn’t want a baby, then he shouldn’t have had unprotected sex – an ugly thing to say when then same argument was once used to deny women the right to an abortion. The implication as times was that, once a man had gotten unprotected sex (it’s always men who want unprotected sex, of course. Women couldn’t possibly enjoy it too) he’d had everything he wanted from her. To ask to take an interest in what happened to his sperm after that was, frankly, a little odd, even suspicious, yet another way men had discovered to hurt women, this time by impinging on their territory as mothers.

Reading the above list back, I don’t know how much of it was really being implied, and how much I was projecting the prejudices of a patriarchal society onto people. It was surely a little of both.

Good points were made: some thought I was suggesting women’s reproductive autonomy, as a privilege, should be stripped away or given to men. I wasn’t: women’s reproductive autonomy should be absolute, even at the expense of men’s. This trade off of rights is bad, but it’s the only system that makes any kind of sense. Until we become post-human, reproductive rights are not something both genders can have.

Others said that exercising bodily autonomy couldn’t be a privilege as it was actually a right. I think it’s both. As a white male I can walk down a street relatively unmolested by cops and totally unmolested by perverts, except for those occasions when cops are also perverts. These things are obviously rights; what sucks is that the rights of women and people of colour aren’t respected like mine are. Likewise, my ablist privilege allows me to walk and talk and do all manner of things with my hands. It’s my right to do these things, my bodily autonomy, my choice. The solution to these privileged rights isn’t to cut off my hands or break my legs (though I imagine if I chose to stop talking, there’d be plenty of support around). It’s to be as aware as I can of my advantages and how what I say and do might affect those who don’t have them.

When you tell people they have a privilege – particularly one which is inherent like those based on race or gender – people often react in the same way. They’ll deny that the privilege exists, or dismiss the examples cited as rare and unrepresentative, even if the person they’re talking to has experienced them personally, many times. They’ll also suggest that their privilege in this instance should be discounted, as there are many times when they are denied privilege due to membership of the group in question, or because other groups have privilege over them in different circumstances (why not use the comments section to accuse me of doing this? I literally don’t have a response! Also, check out these total asshats*). Finally, they might tell you that the privilege itself is somehow a burden, that being rich won’t make you happy for example, and so, really, you’re silly to want it too. I did all these things the first time I was told I had privilege, and like a karmic boomerang I met all these stances again yesterday. That people reacted like they had privilege doesn’t make my analysis right, but coming from people whose analysis of privilege, including their own, should have been sharp it was disappointing. When a woman told me that I should be glad I’d never have to choose whether or not to have an abortion, I lost my cool and told her she was being insensitive and that she should check her privilege. Which was the first time I’d actually used the word, and also the moment Twitter fucksploded in my face.

It probably didn’t help the level of shittyness in the ensuing shitstorm that I was a man telling (mostly) women they were wrong, a position traditionally held by dicks. As the debate got more heated and newcomers came, I did little to assuage anyone of the belief that I, too, was a dick. I’ve apologized to some people personally, and I didn’t fight a one-way battle, but to any and all I was rude to, I’m sorry. The reason, along perhaps with tiredness, is that the hypothetical experiences of the hypothetical men that were being belittled were actually my own. I didn’t tell people this during the conversation. I don’t why I didn’t and I don’t know if I should have. A decade ago I was the expectant father of a child about whom I didn’t get to choose. It was one of the most terrifying and lonely times in my life, particularly because I was still a teenager. I didn’t try to change my partner’s mind – it was her body and her choice. I didn’t walk away from the situation, either, as men apparently are expected to do. I stayed around and raised the child we had made. My life was very, very different as a result. It was a long time ago now, I don’t resent the person who made that choice about my life, and I love my son very much, but having that experience treated as trifling and irrelevant was deeply unpleasant. It triggered old feelings. I’m told this kind of thing happens to women and people of colour a lot when they try to explain lack of privilege to people like me.

I think we all have privileges, and privileges can and do come from membership of groups which, overall, are not privileged. Everyone being privileged does not change the fact that some people are much, much more privileged than others. What it does do is help us find our place in the world, and use the advantages we have to help make it a little more like we’d like it to be.


Since posting this last night several people have pointed out that reproductive autonomy isn't a privilege enjoyed by all women. Around the world women have this right taken away from them, frequently by men. Even in rich, liberal democracies the right to abortion is not assured. It can be taken away by Governments (for example in Ireland) religious movements (the U.S.) or coercion (violent or otherwise) by partners, family and so-called friends (anywhere).

As a result of these facts it has suggested that it is incorrect (and also unhelpfully divisive) to call reproductive autonomy female privilege. I don't think I used that term anywhere, but the gendered language I did use clearly implied it along the way. This is frustrating, as I was, in part, trying to demonstrate how privilege does not respect the lines we have drawn between ourselves, though it may favour one side of the line more than the other. In this context, to have implied reproductive autonomy equals female privilege is an epic fail.

It's fascinating that reproductive autonomy could be a function of almost any type of group privilege depending on the context: gender privilege (male or female), class privilege, racial privilege, cultural privilege, ablist privilege, hetero privilege, and sis privilege. In fact you need at least four of these, in some combination or another, to achieve reproductive autonomy, yet the only one that is absolutely necessary is (some form of) ablist privilege (assuming you want to have a baby with your own genetic material).

Though there's membership of no single group guarantees full reproductive autonomy, there are several whose membership all but guarantee you'll never lose it entirely. Here, unsurprisingly, the familiar hierarchies come back into play: while women can face rape or forced marriage, a man who chooses to wear a condom is very unlikely to completely lose his reproductive autonomy. This assumes he can afford condoms of course, and class is another privilege which pretty effectively safeguards against total reproductive disempowerment. Likewise, being a western Caucasian significantly reduce your chances. In the end, it's sobering to realise that, even with a privilege this nuanced and complex, rich white men are still the safest people on earth.