Tag Archives: Laurie Penny

Milo, Laurie Penny, the Lost Boys, and Toxic Masculinity

 

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Milo Yiannopoulos lost a book deal, a plum speaking gig, and his job this week. Photo: Flickr

I’ve spent a lot of the last three months calling Trump supporters and the alt-right monsters. I did so on this blog. I did so in The Independent.

But there is something missing from my analysis, and it’s something Laurie Penny touched on in a much praised and much derided piece for the Pacific Standard. Before I get into what Penny did and didn’t say, though, let me tell you a story.

When I was 22, I met a young 18-year-old straight boy. We’ll call him Jacob. Jacob was white, blonde, heterosexual, and totally lost in this world. Beyond anything, he was impressionable. Jacob only wanted to be liked. To belong somewhere. Gangly, bumbling, and painfully awkward, Jacob and I met through student government. I took an instant liking to him. He was sweet, goofy, and though intellectually inelegant (as 18-year-olds are apt to be), clearly intelligent.

Jacob looked to me as a mentor, and I to him as a kid I could help. I nurtured him and invited him to hang out with friends and go to parties. Eventually he pledged the fraternity I always hung out with (but didn’t belong to). I didn’t think this a good idea – Jacob was too sensitive, too vulnerable, and frankly too cerebral to really fit in with this hard-drinking, fast-fucking crew. I’ve written about my own college years drinking and fucking my way up and down fraternity row, and I was afraid that blend of toxic masculinity (which at the time I got a high off of) would kill poor Jacob.

Fast forward eight or so years, and he probably disagrees. I still don’t. Jacob was relentlessly picked on, though I must stress not hazed, by the guys in the fraternity. Most of it was the good-natured banter that twenty-something men tend toward. Some of it was a lot crueller. All of it proved too much for Jacob, who began drinking heavily and was prone to becoming violent when intoxicated. It got him banned from some fraternity parties and even, for a time, my house – unless he stayed sober.

Around this time, Jacob took a women’s studies class at my behest, and even began dating a lovely feminist woman. It seemed that he would sort himself out. But a year after I moved to Chicago, I got a call from him saying they’d broken up, and that he was in a very dark place. No stranger to dark places myself, I took a Megabus to see him. He rebounded, and I left.

As friends who live hundreds of miles away from one another often do, we drifted apart. It wasn’t really until last year when I drunkenly called him to catch up that I realised the boy I’d met who entered this world of toxic masculinity grew up into a misogynistic man and Trump supporter. We’ve not talked a lot since.

I’m from Kentucky, so the fact that people I know and even considered friends voted for Donald Trump isn’t all that surprising. But reading Penny’s piece, I thought specifically of Jacob and the strange, drunken, and desperate course he travelled from a dorky college kid to a self-identified feminist to the type of guy who, had he been born a few years later, could’ve been in that car with Penny and Yiannopoulos, evacuating UC-Berkeley.

I’m going to quote at length from Laurie’s piece here, because I think she makes two important points – one clumsily and one cogently. First, this:

It is vital that we talk about who gets to be treated like a child, and what that means. All of the people on Yiannopoulos’ tour are over 18 and legally responsible for their actions. They are also young, terribly young, young in a way that only privileged young men really get to be young in America, where your race, sex, and class determine whether and if you ever get to be a stupid kid, or a kid at all. Mike Brown was also 18, the same age as the Yiannopoulos posse, when he was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014; newspaper reports described him as an adult, and insisted that the teenager was “no angel,” as if that justified what was done to him. Tamir Rice was just 12 years old when he was shot and killed in Cleveland for playing with a toy gun. The boys following Yiannopoulos are playing with a toy dictator, and they have faced no consequences as yet, even though it turns out that their plastic play-fascism is, in fact, fully loaded and ready for murder.

This is the bit that seems to have gotten Penny the most flack, and to be fair, I get it. Writer Mikki Kendall summed it up best in a Twitter thread, in which she points out that Penny building her argument on the bodies of dead Black martyrs is callous and insensitive. I take that point. (I’m posting the first tweet in the thread below; please read and consider it.)

Still, engaging with who gets to be seen as a child, or an innocent, or have their behaviour excused because of youth is a worthwhile intellectual exercise, because in our culture not everybody gets to have youthful indiscretions. That is, in fact, almost exclusively the purview of straight cis white men.

So while perhaps Penny’s word choice was unfortunate, I don’t think her point was far from the mark. And yes, impact matters more than intent, but I have always believed that intent should be considered when thinking of how we respond, because it does still matter.

I say this not only as a defence of Penny’s own work and intentions, but because it plays right into the next very important point she makes. While, as she writes, “these are little boys playing games with the lives of others,” she also points out that Yiannopoulos

exploits vulnerable young men. Not in a sexual way. Not in an illegal way. Yiannopoulos exploits vulnerable young men in the same way that every wing-nut right-wing shock-jock from the president down has been exploiting them for years: by whipping up the fear and frustration of angry young men and boys who would rather burn down the world than learn to live in it like adults, by directing that affectless rage in service to their own fame and power. This is the sort of exploitation the entire conservative sphere is entirely comfortable with. What happens to these kids now that the game has changed?

If you think that centring white male Trump supporters is the antithesis of everything you stand for and the very thing both Penny and I have dedicated our careers to not doing, well, you’re right. So let me say before we go any further that I will absolutely side with any marginalised community over angry, privileged, adultalescent men – whether 17 or 70 – who leverage their power and privilege to harm the most vulnerable. As I’ve said many times, to many friends, and on many panels, I say now for the first time in print:

Explanations are not excuses

There is absolutely no excusing the behaviour of Yiannopoulos, his fanboys, President Trump, or any of the enablers, gatekeepers, or even voters who propelled them all to where they are today. None. But I do think the left, the resistance, and for that matter American culture generally could benefit from asking ourselves what brought them to this point.

If you read Penny’s piece, it’s clear that it wasn’t economic anxiety. If you look at the polling data on who voted for Trump, it’s clear too. But I think Penny hit the nail squarely on the head when she labelled these groupies “the lost boys.” Because I know a boy like them. I know Jacob.

Jacob graduated university in 2013 and moved to a mid-sized southern metropolis in search of the elusive American dream. He found dead end after dead end, working a sales job he didn’t like which (if I recall) he was eventually fired or laid off from. He found dating hard, impossible even. Women just didn’t seem interested in him.

At some point between 2014 and 2016 he moved back to his parents’ house in a small southern city and resumed working at the fast food restaurant he worked at while in high school. Last I talked to him, which was probably last spring, he was the manager. He was still living at home. He was still single. And he was noticeably and perhaps understandably angry about it.

It was at that time he told me that he thought, like Yiannopoulos, that feminism was a cancer on Western society. It had damaged the natural order of men on top and women subservient. All the social progress we made wasn’t working for him, so it obviously wasn’t working for anyone. Best to go back to 1956.

This is of course absurd. It is also straight up sexism.

Yet – consider one of the young men in Yiannopoulos’ posse, who told Penny that “I think a lot of people in this crew wouldn’t be part of the popular crowd without the Trump movement. I think that some of us are outcasts, some of us are kind of weird. It’s a motley crew.”

This quote gave me pause, and I reread it probably four times before going on, particularly the phrase “popular crowd,” which is one most often heard in high school cafeterias, not political discourse. That phrase in and of itself conjures up adolescence, immaturity, and a childlike longing to be recognised as part of the crème-de-la-crème of your social unit. That is not the phrase a well-adjusted adult uses unironically.

I have often times thanked God that I’m gay, because I think it saved me from going down this darkly bigoted path. Being openly gay in Kentucky from 2001 – 2011 did for me what it clearly never did for Yiannopoulos: it made me empathetic to other minorities. But if you read the essay I wrote for Salon about trying so desperately to belong to Greek life at my alma mater, you’ll see that I tried desperately to fit in with the oppressive class:

But from under them I could still obtain a certain level of social cachet. My reputation as someone who would fuck but didn’t talk grew, and with that, came a certain level of trust. “Put a cock in his mouth and he’ll shut up,” one of my buddies once joked. Suddenly, I was invited to the premier parties, not just from the fraternity I was hanging out with, but others. And I went, because it felt good. Being invited signaled acceptance, even if it was only on their terms. I might not be one of them, but I could hang with them, and that meant something.

I was a women’s studies minor. I knew better. Yet I still fell for the trappings of white heteropatriarchy, which as I said in that essay, is one helluva drug – especially to a working class gay kid who had never found any semblance of social acceptance anywhere else.

The sociologist Paul Kivel has a theory he calls the “act-like-a-man box,” which explains the pressures men feel to achieve, to provide, to dominate women, and to suppress their emotions and how these things can negatively impact not only their mental health but their politics. It’s basically a handy diagram to explain the theory of toxic masculinity, and square in the middle of it can be found Jacob and the Milo Yiannopoulos fan club.

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Paul Kivel’s “act-like-a-man box”

Yiannopoulos first came to American prominence through GamerGate, which was a sexist backlash against women playing video games masquerading as being about journalistic ethics. He built his cult following of basement dwelling, Red Bull chugging nerdy men by tearing down the women who many of them felt were invading a space where they could live out their misogynistic, violent fantasies without retribution or critique. Games were all they had, because for many of these men, they were social rejects. (I can say this with some certainty, as the gamers I know who are well-adjusted adult humans reject GamerGate, Yiannopoulos, and Trump without hesitation.)

Yet these are men who were, for a variety of reasons – whether because they were nerdy, or more effeminate, or overweight, or socially awkward – emasculated by the patriarchal norms described in the act-like-a-man box. Instead of burning the box and liberating themselves, they retreated further into it, where they found Donald Trump and Milo Yiannopoulos waiting to exploit their anxieties and insecurities for profit and for power.

Jacob wasn’t a gamer, but he was in the act-like-a-man box too, and Trump and Yiannopoulos found and converted him too. These Lost Boys, as Penny calls them, were lost because they – for whatever reason, or for many reasons – couldn’t live up to the pressures of socially constructed toxic masculinity. So they turned to people who could help redefine that.

This is probably key to why Milo Yiannopoulos so appealed to these young men. Sure, as Penny points out, they weren’t gay, but Yiannopoulos simultaneously defied the norms of masculinity – camping it up, wearing his pearls, openly talking of sucking dick – while being embraced by the patriarchy. If he could do it, they likely thought, so could they. It actually makes perfect sense that Yiannopoulos was the standard bearer of these Lost Boys. He accessed the social currency they desperately want to possess.

Of course key to all of this is how they viewed what it means to be a man. The toxicity isn’t only what it does to them, but what it does to others. That to them being a man meant dominance, violence, and sexual control of women is exactly what enables rape culture to thrive and domestic violence rates to stay abysmally high. It’s patriarchal, white supremacist bullshit that keeps women, racial minorities, LGBT people, and other marginalised groups oppressed. But – and this is a fact many leftists don’t want to grapple with – it also hurts white cis straight men who are denied agency unless they fit these narrow parameters of what it means to be a man.

It has been pointed out numerous times that Yiannopoulos was brought down not by his bigotry but the bigotry of others, whose homophobia was so triggered by what he said about the pederastic paradigm (and I do believe that’s what he was trying to say) that they exiled him from Trumpland. Whether his Lost Boys continue to follow him remains to be seen. Judging from the comments on his Facebook page, I think many will. I also think, as someone who has followed Yiannopoulos’ career since 2009 (which is around the time Penny and I first followed one another on Twitter), that we’ve not seen the last of him. His career has at least six lives left. What the next one manifests as, though, is anyone’s guess.

If Yiannopoulos can’t rehabilitate his image in the alt-right and even mainstream conservatism, someone will surely rise to take his place. As Penny’s article shows, there are plenty of Lost Boys waiting to play Peter Pan. One of them will assume the mantle in due course.

When they do, though, I hope we have a better understanding of who they are and what they’re all about. Because I think understanding the toxic masculinity – and the denial of it – that gave rise to Yiannopoulos and his cult following is important. Besides the obvious “know thy enemy” trope, if we’re ever to successfully deconstruct white heteropatriarchy, we have to know how it harms men too, and also what it can propel them towards. I chose feminism, socialism, and queer theory, opting to burn this shit to the ground. Yiannopoulos, Jacob, and others chose instead to find alternative means of accessing the power and privilege they felt they were denied. That is the more pernicious and dangerous path, one which has undoubtedly led us to where we are today – an era where the progress we’ve collectively made over the past 50 years is in its greatest peril.

We need to think about how we can reach, maybe not these men who are already lost causes, but other boys and men who could become them. And to do that, we need to grapple with toxic masculinity. We need to include it in our analyses and activism.

That doesn’t mean we stop centring women, people of colour, LGBT folks, disabled folks, immigrants, or any other marginalised group. We can’t. That work is too important – more important – and frankly more pressing. Lives are at stake. When you’re in the middle of a war you don’t ask the soldiers to think about how they’ll rehabilitate the enemy after victory. But for those of us who have the currency to spare, we should start examining these questions and considering how to raise principled and purposeful boys into feminist men.

None of this is to excuse any behaviour. “I was just following orders” wasn’t an excuse at Nuremburg, and it isn’t an excuse here. These assholes need to be held to account, full stop. And they cannot be let off the hook. Again, explanations are not excuses. But to not examine how they became who they are is to risk raising the next Milo Yiannopoulos.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a journalist and essayist based in Chicago. He writes about British and American politics and pop culture. His work has appeared at The Independent, The Huffington Post UK, The Daily Dot, and Salon. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan.

I’m more concerned with why people vandalised a war memorial than the fact they did

Protesters vandalised the Women of World War II Monument in London on Saturday. Photo: The Independent

Protesters vandalised the Women of World War II Monument in London on Saturday. Photo: The Independent

Nuance is dead. The internet killed it this weekend, bludgeoned it in the head. Then, just to make sure the job was done, we all kept kicking the corpse. Some of us still are.

I am, of course, talking about what happened this weekend. Several hundred (or thousand, depending whom you ask) protestors marched through the capital, starting at Conservative Campaign Headquarters and weaving their way throughout central London. “Tories out!” they shouted, protesting the recently elected Conservative majority and, of course, further austerity cuts promised in the party’s manifesto. “Undemocratic riots” were the words bandied about by Tory supporters on my Twitter feed, in what I can only describe as a complete failing to understand democracy (because the people’s right to assemble and protest government policies is a basic democratic principle) or riots (because it hardly classifies as such, especially compared to 2011 or, you know, Baltimore circa last month). “How dare these people protest a popularly elected government” which received less than 40% of the vote, they huffed. In all, 17 people were arrested, only three more than were arrested at an English Defence League march through Walthamstow the same day, which curiously wasn’t deemed a riot and has barely been mentioned in the national press.

The real controversy, though, surrounds one particular act of civil disobedience. The Monument to the Women of World War II was vandalised, with someone scrawling “Tory Scum” in red paint. Laurie Penny, a contributing editor at the New Statesman and prominent left-wing voice, was unfazed:

Which immediately created a predictable, if unfortunate, shitstorm. Ms Penny was subsequently subjected to days of abuse from people on Twitter, the tabloid press, and that perennial gadfly of the right, Katie Hopkins, who suggested she be made “a woman of ISIS”. What she—a living breathing woman made of flesh and bones and feelings—has been subjected to by “the right” is far worse than what that memorial—made of stone and steel and entirely inanimate—suffered.

But this doesn’t mean I’m sat here condoning vandalising a war memorial. Far from it, as I said Saturday night, echoing Conor Pope of Labour List:

I did – and do – have a problem with what happened. On the same night someone graffitied the memories of our war heroes, I was buying a round for three British soldiers recently returned home. My brother only last month returned from serving in Afghanistan, and before that Iraq. My sister is a veteran. My brother-in-law is still an active duty soldier. My father was a US marine. My great-grandfather served admirably in World War II. I grew up a mile from a United States Air Force Base, where many of my friends’ parents served. I sit on the state board of directors for a veteran’s charity. The military, whether in the US or the UK, is very important to me, as are the sacrifices our brave women and men have made for the countries I love. Vandalising a war memorial is abhorrent, and I can’t believe I have to even say I stand against it, because of course I do.

However, I also stand against austerity. And this is a point I tried to make to Mr Pope. On Monday, he criticised the author and World War II veteran Harry Leslie Smith for the following tweet:

To which Mr Pope had to say this:

Of course, this isn’t what Mr Smith was saying at all. He was trying to bring a bit of perspective, offering – wait for it – nuance to what had, to this point, been widely reported in terms of black and white. You’re either with the vandals who defaced the memory of war heroes or you’re against it. Clearly, from Mr Pope’s tweet, even the moderate wing of the Labour Party was buying into this rhetoric.

But it simply isn’t true, as an exchange between myself, Mr Smith and Mr Pope (amongst others) demonstrates. It’s not enough to simply decry the action of a vandal. We must ask ourselves why. Why would someone desecrate a monument dedicated to the memory of women who fought for our freedoms? Why would hundreds, maybe thousands, of people take to the streets a mere 48 hours after an election? What has so disheartened the public to embolden them to such acts?

Maybe it’s best summed up in a sign that appeared in one Camden Town pub:

Or maybe it’s that the working class are being squeezed out of affordable housing. Or that cuts to benefits and the bedroom tax are starving the poor. Or that under-25s still can’t find a job, as youth unemployment remains 3 times as high as the national average.

Explaining behaviour does not excuse behaviour. What Ms Penny, Mr Smith, and I have tried to do is point out that people are hurting. They’re disaffected, disheartened, and feel deserted. They are also angry, and righteous anger is justified anger. It isn’t that they are “sore losers,” as the headline of Bryony Gordon’s condescending piece at The Telegraph put it. It’s that they’re desperate.

But she goes on:

There is something profoundly cruel about vilifying a person for their democratic choices. When normal people become targets instead of politicians, something has gone very wrong. This then is the real politics of fear and hatred. It is espoused not by the Right, but by the Left. And the people who are going to make the next five years truly unbearable are not the ones who make up the democratically elected government, but the ones who desecrate war memorials…

This is all true, except that no one is doing this. “Tory Scum” is a vague phrase, and to assume it’s an attack on voters and not the government is to assume the protestors don’t understand power structures. And to say that it’s the left peddling fear as opposed to the right is not only incredibly reductionist, but also misses the entire point, which is that neither the “left” (Labour) nor the “right” (Tories) as we’ve previously understood it has actually addressed the gripping fear and seething anger of what is, effectively, the modern underclass. It’s to dismiss righteous anger in favour of the status quo.

And this brings us back to Mr Pope, who in his own way agreed with Ms Gordon’s assessment:

Which is exactly the problem, as I wrote on Saturday. Labour is so dedicated to respectability politics and wooing the middle-class that it’s ignoring the legitimate concerns of workaday Brits. You don’t have to condone desecration of sacred monuments to understand why someone so desperate for a better life might do just that. After all, why would they feel the need to honour a country they feel is ignoring them (at best) or abandoning them (at worst)?

I’m aghast that this happened. I’m disgusted that someone would vandalise a monument to our war dead. It is an insult to the memory of every single person, particularly the women, who fought and died for our freedom. I make no apologies for the person or people who did this.

But I’m also concerned with why they did it. Unlike Mr Pope or Ms Gordon, and indeed the vast majority of the nebulous “middle” and right-wing, I’m not allowing the actions of one, or maybe a few, to negate from the message so many aimed to send.

People are hurting. People are scared. And people are angry. This government, which hasn’t even yet written a Queen’s Speech, ought to ask themselves why.

This blog was updated shortly after publication on 13/5/2015 to include the image referred to as having been taken at a pub in Camden Town as well as a link to the Waltham Forest Guardian story on the EDL march in Walthamstow. The Curious American regrets these omissions. 

An open letter to James Blunt from a working class American

James Blunt; photo credit: The Mirror

James Blunt; photo credit: The Mirror

Dear James Blunt,

I get it. I know what it’s like to be mocked for my accent. I too have have looked around me and found no one who could guide my career. I’ve also been told my dream is unrealistic, unattainable, and utter crap. Brother, I’ve been there.

You and I are not alike, though. You see, despite my double-barrelled surname, I am not posh. I am unabashedly and inescapably working class. But I am American. And as a working class American, buddy, we need to talk.

In your letter to Chris Bryant, the Labour MP who criticised the structural inequality which prevents people like me from breaking into the arts (while never actually criticising you personally), you wrote that you were signed in America, a land—in your eyes, at least—“where they don’t give a stuff about, or even understand what you mean by me and ‘my ilk’”. You go on to celebrate my country as a place that “exploits success,” seemingly buying into the myth of the American dream. In America, it doesn’t matter whether you’re posh or poor; if you’ve got the talent and the drive, you’re destined for greatness.

If your letter were a record, this is where that scratchy stopping sound would play.

As I said before, I get it. I was told to lose my Appalachian twang, because it sounds uneducated. I didn’t have any mentors guiding my writing career, either. My family and friends told me to focus on my day job. When you’re working class, making ends meet trumps making dreams come true. Success is measured in stability, not by-lines.

When I told my family I wanted to be a writer, they were mortified. The first to graduate university, they thought I’d be a teacher or a lawyer or a banker. And because I had no idea how to actually become a writer, I did just that. After uni, I moved to Chicago and went into mortgages, making a decent middle class living. But, as you probably know, when you’re the creative sort, a mundane day job eats away at your soul. I was miserable. And then I was made redundant.

That was one of the darkest periods of my life, in which I very nearly ended up on the streets. Benefits and God—I don’t whether you believe in either—are the only things that got me through. I didn’t have the luxury of creating, of taking chances, of making the most of a bad situation. That situation was shit, full stop, and every last ounce of energy went in to getting out of it.

Laurie Penny touched on this very point in a series of tweets this week:

 

 

That applies on either side of the Atlantic, James. America is not some mythical meritocracy. For every Bill Clinton or Beyonce we’ve got, Britain has a Margaret Thatcher or Cheryl Fernandez-Virsini. According to a Bloomberg Business report last year, America has greater wealth inequality than Britain. Meanwhile, funding for the arts is in jeopardy, with inner-city and rural schools being particularly vulnerable. These are places where students are also more likely to be poor. And in the United States, when we’re talking about who is poor, we’re disproportionately talking about people who aren’t white. In light of this year’s mayonnaise Oscars (Mayoscars?), this is more relevant than ever.

But poor white kids like me can’t relate to you either, James. You see, with your privileged background, as Laurie Penny accurately pointed out in her tweets, you were encouraged to take risks. You knew, if you failed, that you would land on your feet. For countless kids like me, that wasn’t an option. It’s impossible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you have no boots on your feet.

You talk about paying for your first guitar with money you saved from your holiday jobs. Fair dos. No one bought it for you. But you know what money from my holiday jobs went towards? Nothing, because I didn’t have holiday jobs. I had jobs, full stop, which paid for my rent, my books, my education. This is the thing, James, if you’re a working class kid with ambition, your spare money goes towards paying for university, or rent, or childcare so you can go to work. You know, so you can live.

While you had money to blow on your dreams, we had dreams of blowing our money on guitars. Or in my case, a MacBook. Which I still don’t own, by the way.

If this sounds like “envy-based” politics to you, it ain’t. I look at writers like Laurie Penny and Owen Jones, who are both roughly my age and have been astronomically more successful than me, and I have nothing but admiration. Well done, those two, I think. They’re intelligent, thoughtful, and talented. They deserve their success. But both of them recognise they’ve had privileges which helped get them there. They know their Oxbridge background counts for something, perhaps unfairly, as the Ivy League does in America. Indeed, for every Laurie and Owen on your side of the Atlantic, we have a Luke Russert and Ronan Farrow here. Both of them are incredible journalists and brilliant men, but both have benefited from institutional and economic privileges I’ll never know.

But see, James, I’m not envious. I’m aspirational. I aim to be as successful as Laurie and Owen. I look to them as role models, as folks who have blazed a trail and who have invited me to follow. I don’t beat myself up over the fact that I’m not there yet. I haven’t had the education, or the opportunities, that the two of them have. Our paths are different, and our journeys began in radically different spots on the map to “making it.” I don’t think this in any way builds myself up, nor does it take away from their successes. It’s simply a fact.

As a working class kid from Kentucky, I’ve not had the same opportunities. And despite being American, which you seem to think is a get-out-of-class-free card, I’m still encumbered by many of the same oppressions as working class Brits. And I need you to understand this.

I need you to recognise that Chris Bryant wasn’t diminishing your success, or Eddie Redmayne’s success, or anyone’s success, simply because they’re posh. I need you to understand that just because we say you have privilege doesn’t mean you didn’t earn your success. When Bryant, Penny, myself, or anyone says this, we’re talking about the systemic elimination of working class people from the arts, from journalism, from government, and from any number of professions. This isn’t personal; it’s political.

No one is saying that you didn’t work hard to get to where you are. What we’re saying is that, in terms of this race we call life, you got a head start. And all we’re asking is that you recognise that.

Warm regards,

A working class American

’tis better to give than recieve. That’s crap. But here’s a present anyway.

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Last week, I published my Christmas wish list, and kindly expected y’all to deliver. What can I say? Greed is good. Boris says so.

Still, they say the greatest gift is giving. This is, of course, rubbish, as the greatest gift is cash so I can avoid returning whatever hideous or useless gift you thoughtlessly picked up on your way to the Poundsaver till. But still, in the spirit of the season, here’s my gift to Britain this Christmas:

  • I give the gift of vibration to Lord Heseltine. Get your head of the gutters, you lot. Not that sort of vibration (though maybe 50 years ago…). Phone vibration. This way, the next time his wife rings him as he films Question Time, Dimbleby needn’t be bothered.
  • Guido Fawkes brought to our attention that Boris’ hair is receding along with his credibility. I can’t do much about the latter, but as to the former, I gladly give Boris a box of Regaine.
  • To the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, I give the gift of babysitting. Prince George is adorbs, and I have five nieces and nephews so I can totes handle this, babes. You deserve a bit of a date night, don’t you?
  • I give Lynton Crosby to the University of London Union. He’s great at turning out he votes, and you not so much. I also give solidarity.
  • David Cameron gets a selfie with me, since he’s so keen on being seen with Americans. And since he’s got the Regaine now, Boris can be the flirty blond.
  • Angela Merkel gets a telegraph, since that seems to be the only way she can safely communicate electronically.
  • Putin gets donkeypunched by Uncle Sam. If you don’t know what that means, Google it. Warning: NSFW.
  • I’d like to buy Anjem Choudary a pint. Seriously mate, you need it.
  • Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gets this children’s book. Remember what happened the last time Spain messed with a Queen Elizabeth.
  • I give British Gas customers Jack Wills jumpers. You might not be able to afford you energy bills, but you shiver in style with these fashionable fleeces!
  • Katie Hopkins gets a map of Asia. See that big country down to the south? That’s India. It’s a place, you see. And if you look to the northeast, you may be able to locate a lovely Japanese town I think you ought to visit. It’s called Fukue.
  • Alan Rusbridger gets a class on journalistic ethics taught by Louise Mensch. I’ll even throw in a freebie on investigative reporting, since she seems to be the only one uncovering just how badly you’ve British national security.
  • That being said, Edward Snowden gets amnesty here in America, but only if he brings home the documents. And marries my best friend, cos she’s kinda keen.
  • Russell Brand gets a haircut and perhaps a bit of substance, provided he doesn’t abuse it.
  • Laurie Penny gets a mini American flag to waive, as she seems to be here more than I am. You’re not a proper American until you waive the stars and stripes at a street parade. And also eaten a deep fried Twinkie.
  • Rand Paul and Shia LaBeouf both get an English 101 course, which should teach you how to properly cite your sources. And perhaps form coherent sentences. But baby steps.
  • Greg Rutherford gets all the television appearances he wants, and perhaps a new kit deal. Seriously. A boy’s gotta eat.
  • Alex Ferguson gets a villa in Spain or Cornwall or wherever pensioners go to sun themselves. Just steer clear of Florida. It’s like Duck Dynasty down there.
  • Gay and lesbian Londoners and Chicagoans get marriage counselling. We now get to be as miserable as straight people. Ah, equality.
  • Single gay and lesbian Londoners and Chicagoans get tequila. It’ll help numb the nagging this Christmas. Suddenly we have no excuse when grandma asks why we haven’t settled down. Damn.
  • Justin Bieber gets a copy of a biography, any biography, of Michael Jackson. I cannot stand aside and watch history repeat itself. He even had a monkey, for Christ’s sake! No. I won’t be party to this. Justin, we’re here to help, buddy.
  • Chris Ramsey gets my apologies for gratuitously lusting after him, and also an American tour so I can do it in person.

Finally, to all my friends, family, readers, followers, and everyone who has helped make my return to writing this year an enjoyable if tumultuous ride, a massive thank you. I’m still finding my voice, but it’s great to be back. 2014 is going to be tremendous. I can’t wait.

What if Britain had a First Amendment?

There’s been so much talk about the importance of a free press and free speech lately that I feel as though I’m at a salon with Milton and Locke. In light of the Royal Charter regulating the press and furor around the Guardian’s reporting on and release of classified GCHQ intelligence documents , there’s been a lot of talk, including from former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, about the UK’s need for an American-style First Amendment. Indeed, I’ve spoken at length about my passion for the First Amendment and the freedoms it guarantees, and I realise that I can’t approach British politics through a British lens because my own perceptions are intrinsically coloured by these deeply ingrained principles.

You see, if in the canon of American civil religion the Constitution is our Bible, the First Amendment is most certainly our gospel. In one run-on sentence, the framers articulated the essence of the new nation, the core principles for which so much Yankee blood was shed and which would transform the world:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of greivances.

Now, I refuse to play the part of the arrogant American who feels Britain ought to adopt the First Amendment verbatim. Though our legal system stems from your common law, the two have understandably evolved differently since separation. I’m not even suggesting that our way is the best way. But I think it’s important to understand what the First Amendment means to Americans before discussing whether Britain ought to adopt it as its own.

The problem is, articulating the first amendment in tangible terms is a challenge. Like our taste for cold and flavourless beer and our belief that every household should be armed like South American guerillas, the First Amendment runs in our blood. We don’t really notice it on a daily basis, because it’s not something we often think about. It just is. The First Amendment is like the air around us-it isn’t really palpable; you can’t really feel it until a storm rolls in.

For that reason, it’s easier to explain what the First Amendment isn’t. It isn’t government intelligence agents ransacking a newspaper office and destroying intellectual property in an attempt to curtail publication. It isn’t sending the police to grandma’s house because she doesn’t like gay people. And it isn’t breaking up a peaceful protest and arresting a lawmaker. I’m not saying America always gets it right either. (See: my alma mater’s horrible policy on freedom of speech in e-mail ; the case of the Legal Schnauzer out of Alabama ; or all of the 1960s.) But by and large, it gets the job of protecting our liberties done.

The First Amendment doesn’t grant permission to be like Jeremy Clarkson on steroids, spouting off every inane thing that comes to mind. It doesn’t mean that you can threaten bodily harm to someone, or falsely report a crime, or the favourite example on this side of the pond, shout fire in a crowded theatre. With great freedom comes great responsibility. I think Spiderman said that, or something close to it.

So what does it all mean? I don’t bloody well know. Asking an American what the first amendment means is like asking a Canadian to define maple syrup. We know it tastes sweet, we know that we love it, and we know that it’s intrinsic to our national identity, but we can’t really tell you why. I suppose it means being able to crassly and tastelessly joke that Prince Harry got a handjob from an Abercrombie manager without fear of the guillotine. It means questioning whether your leaders are who they say they are without penalty or sanity, and it means being able to say the the most vile, repulsive things about me and yet have me defend your right to say it (while laying a verbal smackdown on you, of course).

That’s one of my biggest concerns with the British approach to hate speech. I’m choking on my words right now, but David Starkey articulated it quite well . Britain’s laws against hate speech would never survive under the First Amendment, and thank God for that. As Jonathan Rauch recently wrote in The Atlantic, the freedom to offend minorities is imperative, not only to the cause of liberty, but for the social advancement and acceptance of the minority itself-a similar, if not an exact, argument to that of Starkey. “The best society for minorities,” Rauch writes, “is not

Political cartoon by Robert Ariail. First published in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.
Political cartoon by Robert Ariail. First published in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.

 

the society that protects minorities from speech but the one that protects speech from minorities.” Indeed, its only by exposing bigotry and ignorance in the public sphere that we can attack it head on and continue to win not only legal but social equality. This applies to gay, Muslim and black Britons today as much as it applied to open disdain for the working class, suffragettes and papists in days gone by. It’s hard to attack an enemy in the shadows, and laws restricting speech push bigots into the night, where they silently seethe with contempt, stifling not only their own hatred but any chance for social growth. Or, to put it another way, you have to counter speech with more speech, not less speech.

Of course, the primary medium for speech has historically been the press. On last week’s Question Time, Paris Lees asked what made newspapers so special that they needn’t be regulated by Parliament. Well, it’s quite simple: for 300 years the British broadsheets have been the conduits of liberty and democracy, as outlined by more than 70 human rights organisations in an open letter to David Cameron. Similarly, Louise Mensch brilliantly makes the point while simultaneously taking the press to task for its own meandering failures. Laws regulate what is or isn’t shown on television, as they also do in the United States, because the First Amendment provides leeway for some censorship of material deemed contrary to public taste and decency, but it’s a fine line and one which is frequently challenged.

But saying that you can’t show nekkid people before the threshold isn’t the same as restricting what can be reported on; nobody dare argues that the journalistic integrity and independence of the BBC ought to be regulated. Likewise, as an American, the thought of a government agency-even one as loosely affiliated with Westminster as that established by the royal charter-sits very uneasy. As schoolchildren, Americans learn of John Peter Zenger, a German-American writer johnpeterzengerwho successfully defended himself against charges of libel and is widely regarded as the Ron Burgundy of the eighteenth century. The Supreme Court has upheld the freedom of the press to print the Pentagon Papers, and set the bar very high for plaintiffs to claim libel in New York Times vs Sullivan, birthing the so-called “Sullivan defence” mandating that the plaintiff prove “actual malice” was involved and intentioned, citing and strengthening press freedoms. The UK, on the other hand, has no Sullivan Defence, and it is much easier to prove libel in Britain than America. A First Amendment, though, could feasibly alter British libel law, and in the United States has continually prevented government (and any public figure) from meddling in what our newspapers report. Still, we’re by no means perfect, as evidenced by the arrest of journalists covering the Occupy movement and the treatment of Michael Hastings prior to his fiery and mysterious death led to an outpouring of shock and grief from journalists around the world, even though his family continues to insist he wasn’t murdered.

It’s for this reason that Reporters Without Borders ranked the United States three spots behind the United Kingdom in this year’s Press Freedom Index, though the US rose fifteen spots from 2012 in large part because of public outrage about the detention of the Occupy journalists. The United Kingdom, is it reasonable to say, should expect its ranking to plummet in light of the current fires of regulation and oversight the Government and Hugh Grant have stoked. David Cameron’s warnings of consequences to publications disclosing the Snowden leaks , as well comments by Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps’ on reforming the license fee, widely interpreted as a threat to cut the BBC funding unless it produced more favourable reporting on the government, are about as helpful as sending Pétroleuses or Mrs. O’Leary to put that fire out.

The debate about a free press and free speech isn’t contained to the broadsheets, though. As important as it is to protect the rights of the good and noble, it’s just as important to protect the rights of the tasteless and crude (here’s looking at you, Jack Whitehall.) In the United States, that means protecting the smut published by Larry Flynt, who recently gave an interview touching on free speech to the BBC’s Newsnight. In the United Kingdom, it’s Page 3. Despite an online petition to ban Page 3 (which, in case you’re gay or American or both, is a page in The Sun with scantily clad women), David Cameron has said he doesn’t support it, despite his admittedly noble but ultimately flawed plan to filter internet porn. That’s a good Tory, because curtailing the freedom of a paper to publish what it will and of consumers to vote with their pocketbooks is decidedly antithetical to small-c conservative principles. Oh yeah, and democracy.

A similar First Amendment argument can be made against the oft-debated banning of the burqa or niqab. This has come up a lot in the last few years, especially following France’s outright ban on full face coverings, and most recently in September, when a judge ruled that a woman could not give evidence in her own trial whilst wearing the veil. Ken Clarke seems to support it, but Baroness Warsi summed it up as un-British. “I think people should have the right to wear what they want in this country,” she said. “Women won the right on what to wear many, many decades ago.” Well, yeah. Baroness Warsi speaks pointedly of the feminist arguments, echoed earlier this fall by Laurie Penny, who drew the conclusion that this isn’t just an issue of sexism, but also of Islamophobia. But if Britain had a First Amendment, would this even be a topic of debate?

Probably not. Take, for example, the case of two Christian women who appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to be allowed to wear crosses on the job. This case would be easily decided in favor of the plaintiffs on this side of the Atlantic, as is evidenced by the prolific case law on religious freedom. Similar is the case of Celestina Mba, a Christian who was sacked for refusing to work on Sundays. She lost her appeal. Accross the pond, though, the Civil Rights Act 1964 requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for people of faith, as a nod to freedom of worship and the First Amendment.

Now, this isn’t to say Americans aren’t bigots. Duh. We’re the nation that produced Michael Savage and Mel Gibson. Look at the ongoing struggle of Muslims in Murfreesboro, Tennessee to simply have a mosque, which while being challenged on planning and zoning laws, is rife with religious subtext-and, also, less-subtle nods to Islamophobia, including the plaintiffs citing fears about “sharia law” and “terrorists.” The Tennessee Supreme Court refused to take the case, allowing for an appeal to the US Supreme Court. Then there was the furor of the pastor burning the Koran in Florida and the New York mosque built close to Ground Zero, which had striking parallels to the case of mosque being built on the eastend of London several years back.

Despite the wishes of the good denizens of Murfreesboro, the First Amendment doesn’t give way to a right to discriminate in the public sphere, though-at least not really. Your rights end where mine begin, and in 2009 I made the argument that it was right to sack a Christian registrar who refused to officiate same-sex civil partnership ceremonies. The same goes for the Christian couple that wanted to ban gay people from their bed and breakfast. If you’re offering a public service or operating in the free market, you must abide by certain rules, and one of those rules is that you gotta play fair. It’s oft said that freedom of religion is freedom from religion, which is why the Supreme Court banned school-led prayer but not prayer in schools. The distinction is fine yet clear-free exercise of religion in a public sphere is acceptable, but the public sphere exercising religion is not. Frankly, it’s always baffled me why the United Kingdom-with an established church-is so antsy about the former. (If I ever meet Owen Jones, I’ll ask him.)

Less convoluted than the muddy waters of religion, though, is the the freedom of assembly. Two years ago I was living with a rather senior member of the Occupy Chicago movement-well, as senior as a horizontal leadership structure can allow-who was arrested for refusing to leave Grant Park after hours. The Occupy folks didn’t have a permit, which led to quite a few of them spending the night in jail. Still, the right to freely assemble is often cited by those staging protests, such as the storied

Caroline Lucas, the Green party's only MP, was arrested for protesting fracking

Caroline Lucas, the Green party’s only MP, was arrested for protesting fracking

March on Washington. From what I can tell, Britain’s pretty good on this one too, and the aforementioned fracking protest with Caroline Lucas was busted for reasons similar to the Chicago Police breaking up and arresting the Grant Park occupiers. The difference seems to be that the Balcombe protesters believe the police were ‘heavy handed’, while shockingly, the folks in Grant Park thought CPD did a fair job of things. This isn’t always the case. Birmingham police turned hoses and attack dogs on children in the Civil Rights Movement, and Chicago Police notoriously brutalised protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention. And none of this has to do with the First Amendment and everything to do with alleged police brutality, though the First Amendment could feasibly be construed to ensure the people have a right to assemble in a public space. In fact, this was pretty much the mantra of the Occupy Chicago protestors, and regardless of what you think of them, the First Amendment allows a compelling argument to be made.

What’s also compelling, if only for both its blatancy and banality, is the right to petition. It’s oft overlooked in American discourse, because really, writing a Congressman isn’t nearly as flashy as giving a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and certainly less scandalous than posing on Page 3, unless of course you were writing to former Congressman Anthony Weiner. But it’s important to note that the right to petition grievances was one of the primary factors propelling the thirteen colonies to separate from the motherland. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, in the Declaration of Independence, that “…in every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury,” and provided just cause for insurrection and independence. That King-in-Parliament wouldn’t hear-or rather, validate-the concerns of the colonists was the driving force behind its inclusion in the US Bill of Rights.

What most Americans don’t realise-and would be loathed to admit-is that this right already existed under the British constitution. It’s included in the Bill of Rights 1689 (called the “English Bill of Rights” over this way). So that’s not exactly a novel American concept.

Really none of it is, as pretty much all of this has its roots in Magna Carta or subsequent acts of Parliament. But don’t tell my compatriots that, because it’ll just hurt their feelings. America likes to think it invented liberty. Of course, it didn’t. But it did codify it in a succinct and explicit way, providing the framework for American case law, in turn allowing for the growth of those freedoms, which developed in a way distinct of their British antecedents.

It’s for this reason that looking at what a First Amendment would really mean for contemporary Britain is so interesting, and frankly, needed. The roots are the same, but the blossoms quite different, and in the more than two centuries since our two countries parted ways, my side of the Atlantic has taken things on a slightly different trajectory, ensuring personal liberties over collective cohesion. This is purely anecdotal, but it seems to me the British public prefers it this way. From Question Time/Big Question audience reactions to debates about multiculturalism and secularism to broad support for the HackedOff charter (because really, that’s what it is), and even in conversations with British friends who just don’t understand why we allow the Westboro Baptist Church to picket everything from funerals to fun parks, the Brits seem to like things the way they are. And that’s fine. While I personally feel very concerned about press freedom in the UK, overall, it’s still a functioning democracy. Still, it’s an interesting notion, and as the debate over religious freedom, hate speech, and press regulation continues, I imagine one that will resurface from time to time. Best be prepared.

For an interesting, more learned, and British(!) perspective on this issue, see Jonathan Peters’ July 2012 interview with Lord Lester in The Atlantic.

#NNSexism: Newsnight illustrates the rise, Twitter the need, of digital feminism

Last night, Fi Glover had an excellent piece on BBC’s Newsnight about digital feminism and the future of women’s liberation in the 21st century. She profiled Laura Bates’ “Everyday Sexism Project”, the media’s fascination with and objectification of breasts, including Amanda Palmer’s Glastonbury nip slip, as well as the objectification of black women’s bodies. The prevailing theme was that technology and social media is changing the face of feminism, promoting the democratisation of the women’s movement.

So perhaps it was inevitable that a story about feminists online would prompt a storm of controversy on the Twittersphere. Using the hashtag #NNSexism, the Twitterati engaged the masses in their own experiences with everyday sexism while a debate erupted over the role of feminism and, indeed, women themselves. One of the biggest debates I had was the tiresome, redundant, 20th century debate over the difference between sex and gender, as illustrated below:

Now, for those of you who aren’t aware, the difference between sex and gender is quite simple. Sex (male/female) is physiological. It has to do with your reproductive organs, your hormones, and your pelvic bone. Gender (man/woman), on the contrary, is a social construct. It’s the set of characteristics we are assigned, even before birth, based on our sex. Think of it as blue for boys, pink for girls. Dolls for Linda, trucks for Liam. It’s not a radical notion; it’s been debated pretty heavily for the past sixty years, certainly since the advent of the third wave feminism in the United States.

My position sparked a lot of vitriol, mostly from conservative (small c) men. Some of it was quite nasty:

Others took to calling out the “sexism” of the Newsnight piece:

What was most poignant, though, were the women (and some men, like myself) using the hashtag as a sounding board for their own experiences with everyday sexism:

What was most disappointing was the number of men trying to trivialise or completely write off sexism and misogyny:

To say there is no evidence of real sexism is laughable. It certainly shows, at the very least, that one hasn’t been paying much attention to, well, anything. Just this month we’ve had Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis speak out on the fear many women have of being “found out” or labeled a “fraud”, the United Nations showing just what the internet thinks of women (and it isn’t pretty), and The Great British Bakeoff finalist Ruby Tandoh defending herself against allegations that she flirted herself to the top. I mean, cos, you know, pretty women can’t bake well. Only male chefs and your nan.

Or they attempted to turn the conversation away from women and onto their own perceived grievances:

Which Laurie Penny succinctly put down to actual, perhaps stealthy, misogyny:

And of which I stand guilty:

I’ll be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me that by sharing my own experience I was steering the conversation away from sexism against women (which is 99% of sexism, after all). In fact, I thought Laurie Penny was calling me specifically out when she tweeted that, and it made me reevaluate my personal approach to the hashtag. After all, regardless of whether or not I identify as a feminist, gay men are still capable of sexism, and we have a notorious entitlement to womanhood and women’s bodies.

In the end I forgave myself. My feminist credentials are fairly well known, and while it was perhaps rude to change the subject in the middle of a conversation, it wasn’t entirely off-topic. In fact, I challenged Laurie on this point (and got no response, I should mention-though I do hope she’d agree):

For as the men who couldn’t grasp the difference between sex and gender prove, we (as a society) can’t even seem to get the vocabulary, let alone the conversation, right. So the men who actually acknowledge not only the merits of feminism but the hindrance patriarchy places on their own existence ought to be not only allowed but encouraged to freely contribute. At the very least we’re acknowledging sexism is real and tangible, which is more than can be said for a great lot of us.

That’s not to give us a pass, though. Patriarchy manifests itself in all sorts of ways, and the internet has proven that even those of us with the best intentions can sometimes stand accused, and even slightly guilty of, inadvertent sexism. In the end, Newsnight did a commendable job of highlighting the rise of digital feminism, but Twitter itself illustrated the dire need for it. Social media makes it possible, in real time, to illustrate tangible examples of blatant and even unintentional sexism and misogyny, and the Twittersphere was not lacking either yesterday. The rise of sites like EverydayFeminism and Jezebel give voice to women (and men) who may otherwise lack one, and perhaps it’s only a matter of time until we have a Feminist Spring.

Until then, let’s all brainstorm it a catchy hashtag.