Not Ben's Blog: The Sequel

Old age protesters are driving political dissent in this country

“Try and track down Mark Thomas while I’m away,” said Ben as he departed for the wilds of Cornwall in his Bentley, leaving me to perform the online equivalent of watering the cat and feeding the plants. “And good luck.”

In fact it proved rather easier to locate the elusive comic campaigner than I’d imagined. There he was on stage last Saturday, addressing the crowds that had gathered in Trafalgar Square for the latest anti-war/stop Trident demonstration.

Mark’s best gag was to wonder why we needed a deterrent when the last nuclear assault on this country occured in a central London sushi bar. As he wisely pointed out, any number of Union Jack-stamped warheads can’t counter the polonium-laced tuna and sashimi menace.

Anyway, Mark is back on newstatesman.com this week, inviting you to download a badge (surely a web first?) of the imprisoned Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan.

You should be aware that this could, strictly, count as “glorifying terrorism” after a parliamentary book launch for a collection of Ocalan’s prison writings was banned on just those grounds – but you can always claim it’s Borat, says Mark. Separated at birth? Read the article and make up your own mind.

Back to the subject of Saturday’s march, one thing that struck me was the average age of those on the streets. Public demonstrations are traditionally associated with youthful idealism yet judging by the number of OAPs (old age protesters) I saw, more of those involved had cut their political teeth marching to Aldermaston in the 1960s than on the great anti-war gathering of 2003.

Even the speakers are beginning to show their age. Tony Benn, that sacred totem of the left, recalled that he had first spoken in Trafalgar Square more than half a century ago at the time of that other misconceived British military misadventure, Suez. Livingstone, Galloway and the numerous veterans of Greenham Common are hardly new voices either.

Only Rose Gentle, speaking eloquently and emotionally about the death of her soldier son, Gordon, in Iraq, ensured the day did not simply become a nostalgic tribute to a golden age of leftie activism.

None of this is to belittle the efforts of those present or their contribution to the long and illustrious history of protest in this country, but it is to wonder where the next generation of political campaigners will come from. Four years ago Ms. Dynamite represented the yoof voice, but now even she is nowhere to be seen.

Anyway, the Stop the War coalition has now hit on a fairly desperate scheme to try to engage the iPod generation, urging peace campaigners to download a new version of Edwin Starr’s classic “War (What is it good for?)” purporting to be by Ugly Rumours, Tony Blair’s former musical collaborators.

“Tony Blair’s band is back – You can send the Prime Minister into the charts,” says the website hopefully.

Even the song is old. And as if the kids care who's No. 1 in the pop charts anymore anyway.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.