Thatcher’s legacy, baby-faced dictators and funny women

Helen Lewis-Hasteley on Maggie and legacy-building, tots with lethal toys and the press and the publ

Amid a sea of tributes to Christopher Hitchens - including the invention of a genre of journalism, the "then I woke up with a terrible hangover, while the Hitch had already filed a 3,500-word essay on G K Chesterton" article - there was one that stood out.

It was by Salon's Glenn Greenwald, and it used Hitchens's death to ask: when is the appropriate moment to question the career and legacy of divisive public figures?

Noting how the Hitch had been one of the few to speak ill of Ronald Reagan during a fiesta of Republican-patrolled grief in 2004, Greenwald wrote: "To allow significant political figures to be heralded with purely one-sided requiems - enforced by misguided . . . notions of private etiquette that bar discussions of their bad acts - is not a matter of politeness; it's deceitful and propagandistic."

It's a question that left-wingers must ask themselves about Margaret Thatcher, who will apparently be awarded a state funeral when the time comes. There will be huge pressure not to criticise her actions - and point out their effects today - in the days after her death. Show some respect. Think of her family.

It's a tempting argument, but wrong. Politicians are public property. They must submit to being pilloried by cartoonists and columnists in office and having their legacy fought over once they step off the stage. Their death should not be a signal for immediate canonisation but one for unblinkered reflection on their life.

I was only seven when Thatcher left power so I don't have any visceral feelings about her (although the mere mention of her name is enough to send my mother, a woman so mild-mannered she uses "Bugs Bunny" as a swear word, up the wall; I suspect my coal-miner grandfather would have a few choice words, too). And if I'm honest, if she were a left-winger, I'd probably argue she deserves a state funeral as our first female prime minister. So I can't get worked up about that: let the right give her a state funeral, as long as the left doesn't have to pretend to be sad that she's gone.

Bah, humble

A scan of the words that entered the dictionaries gives you a flavour of 2011: Merriam-Webster has "bromance", while Collins has "clicktivism" and "unfollow". As portmanteaux are all the rage, here's my nomination for next year: humblebrag, or boasting under the cover of humility. The Humblebrag Twitter account is full of US reality stars saying, "SOOOO weird to see my ugly face on a billboard LOL," and thespians sighing, "Damn, the last time I cried I was paid for it." My favourite is this, from Malcolm in the Middle's Frankie Muniz: "Just involved in a major car accident . . . In my own driveway . . . Involving two of my own cars." Tiny violin time.

Young guns

When I heard that North Korea was to be ruled by the 27-year-old Kim Jong-un, my first thought was: great, there's a leader of a nuclear power who's younger than me. More ammunition for my mother this Christmas. Over in Pakistan, Bilawal Zardari Bhutto is co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party with his father, President Asif Ali Zardari. His birthday is 21 September 1988 (1988! Surely only actors in Skins were born in 1988!). As the sun sets on my twenties, I've had to get used to pop stars and footballers, then novelists and TV presenters, being younger than me. Next on the list, it seems, are the people with access to weapons of mass destruction.

Private lives, public deaths

A few years ago, an acquaintance committed suicide by jumping from the roof of a restaurant in the City. This spectacular exit ensured that his death was reported in every national newspaper - making what was already an agonising time for his family and friends even harder, as reporters sniffed around for any hint of sex or drugs or dodgy dealings to explain why a talented young man would choose to end his life. On 27 November, another man with seemingly everything to live for - the football manager Gary Speed - was found dead at his home.

Aside from a long-lens picture of his house printed on the Mail website, I had thought the media were showing commendable restraint in their reporting. Then, two days before Christmas, the Times ran an extraordinary editorial (which, even more extraordinarily, was re­printed in full in the next day's Daily Mail) arguing that the Leveson inquiry into press standards was inhibiting the tabloids from fully exploring the circumstances of his death. "Mr Speed was a person of power and influence . . . Suicide is, or at least should be, a matter of public concern. And, since his death, the internet has lit up with unsubstantiated rumours."

To which the rejoinder must be: we have coroners' courts for a reason; by and large, they do the job of investigating causes of death a lot more carefully and soberly than newspapers. And if the Times believes this to be a matter of such burning public interest, why should it be left to the tabloids to investigate it?

A woman's wit

Last year, I wrote about the paucity of funny women on TV. Three bits of good news: the first is that Sarah Millican's latest DVD, Chatterbox, has sold 150,000 copies - a record for a female comedian. The second is that the BBC devoted 90 minutes to a Victoria Wood retrospective in a prime Boxing Day time slot.

The last is the continuing success of the columnist Caitlin Moran, whose autobiography, How To Be a Woman, was the book I referred to most in conversation this year. For the first time I can remember, here was not just a funny woman but a funny mother. Mums are many things in popular culture - organised, put-upon, loving, harassed, nagging - but I can't recall one being hilarious before. Things are looking up.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

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