So, it turns out feminism is a CIA plot to undermine the left

Laurie Penny's eyebrow-raising encounter with a media studies professor at Occupy Wall Street.

My eyebrow-raising encounter with a media studies professor at Occupy Wall Street.

I'm having a major political rethink this week, because it turns out that all along, feminism was a CIA plot to undermine the left. Don't just take it from me. Mark Crispin Miller, author, professor of media studies at NYU, and host of New York's Notes from Underground book event, raised the issue himself when challenged about the all-male, all-white, all-over-forty lineup of his panel on The Future of Occupy Wall Street. Later, a young woman in the audience told me that it felt, to her, no different from watching an all-male lineup on the Hill debate the future of abortion rights in America on television that morning.

To give Miller his due, he did open the whole event with the sort of shrugging, cutesy apology for the homogeneity of the panel - which included David Graeber, Nick Mirzoeff and Andrew Ross - that has become routine at speaking events whose audiences are likely to care. All the usual excuses were trotted out, as questioners for the audience, including myself, pressed the point: it was very last minute. We couldn't find any women, or young people, or people of colour at short notice. We just put the panel together from our friends and from academics we knew.

The thing is that we've heard all of these excuses for the marginalisation of women, ethnic minorities and young people in debate spaces so many times before, and they are often tragically sincere in their intent, and they all have obvious retorts:

  1. Why does the fact that the event was called at 'short notice' matter? (Are there any speaking events that aren't?) Were you asking women and people of colour along at the end, as an afterthought? Why aren't you asking them first, as a natural part of the process of inviting speakers?
  2. If you can't think of women, people of colour and young people to talk about your chosen subject, that says more about what you're reading and who you're associating with than it does about the participation of people who are not old white professional blokes in any particular sphere. In this particular case, I could easily name you half a dozen women and people of colour living in New York City who know more about 'The Future of Occupy Wall Street' than at least three out of four of the people on that panel, and I've been here a fortnight.
  3. If you're just selecting speakers from your friends and colleagues, don't you find it problematic that your friends and colleagues are overwhelmingly middle-aged white blokes?
  4. No, having one woman/minority/young person in your lineup and five doesn't make it all better. Speaking as someone who is regularly invited to be the one woman and/or the one young person on a panel of older white blokes, it makes something twist and ache inside to know that you are valued not primarily for what you say but because of your particular demographic: they could put any of over a billion women under thirty on the planet in your place and feel that they had achieved the same effect.
  5. No, inviting that one woman to chair your debate rather than participate in it doesn't make it all better. This is such a common get-out tactic, and it's a special sort of offensive, because it shows that organisers understand the importance of having a female person present in the debate, they just can't quite bring themselves to allow her to voice her own opinions - her job is merely to manage and make things pleasant for the men as they talk. Seriously. I'm sick of watching panels where the one woman's only role is to facilitate discussion between men, to handle rude or unruly questioners, to lay out the dialectical doilies and retreat into the background when she is not needed.
  6. For fuck's sake, why exactly is it so hard to make space in political discussions - even on the nominal left - for people who are not middle-aged, middle class white men?

Well, between us, the women in the audience extracted the normal platitudes from Miller, but it's always worth asking again, because just occasionally people crack and say what they actually think. In this case Miller utterly lost, as the Americans like to put it, his shit, and - well, just watch the video. The significant quote is:

It's interesting to note that Ford and Rockefeller and the other foundations with strong CIA connections started giving grants in the early 70s to study race and gender. It was a sudden move towards identity politics by these organisations and the theory is that the reason they did this was to balkanise the left and to prevent it from pursuing any kind of a class or economic analysis. Without denying the justice of what you're saying, this is not an irrelevant theory. I don't think, anyway.

My favourite part of the clip is what the other three panellists do when Miller launches into his eyebrow-waggling rant about how 'identity' politics is a plot to distract white male academics from doing the real work of talking about class and economics whilst entirely ignoring the race and gender issues with which they are inextricably intertwined. Mirzoeff looks away. Graeber picks awkwardly at his shirt. Ross writes in his notepad, possibly the words 'honestly, I'm not with this guy.'

The next day, I had a Twitter exchange with Miller, in which he directed me to the theory he was referencing, which is apparently the work of someone called Daniel Brandt. In the essay in question, Brandt's groundbreaking ideas about the duplicitous, damaging role of women's rights on the left include frothing paranoid spittle-flecks like this:

One yearns for the good old days, when issues were big, women didn't want to be imperial spies, and idealism and ethical indignation were accepted from nonvictims. In 1977 the CIA notified eighty academic institutions that they had unwittingly been involved in -- surprise! -- mind-control research...

The Women's Liberation Movement may be considered as subversive to the New Left and revolutionary movements as they have proven to be a divisive and factionalizing factor.... It could be well recommended as a counterintelligence movement to weaken the revolutionary movement." This was from an August, 1969 report by the head of the San Francisco FBI office.[4] Within several years, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations were pumping millions into women's studies programs on campus.

OH NO, THE CIA ARE USING WOMEN'S STUDIES TO CONTROL YOUR MINDS. THIS IS SERIOUS, CHAPS. For the love of god, someone investigate Planned Parenthood and Abortion Rights UK right now! All that faff about a woman's right to choose might be an attempt to distract the white working class from issues that matter to real people! When I asked Miller to clarify his comments, he responded with the following TwitLonger essay (it's on his Twitter feed, for anyone to read):

Struck by how much time we'd spent on our (the panelists') race and gender, I made the point to note Brandt's argument that, in the Seventies, the student left may have been subtly guided toward race/gender issues as a way to get the movement not to deal with class or economics -- which, if they'd kept that focus, might have led to an alliance with the labor unions.

According to that argument, in other words, the rise of what we call "identity politics" was engineered to drive a wedge between the left and working-class whites, who now perceived the academic left as focused on "diversity" instead of economic justice; and this estrangement also made it easy for the right to woo white workers by playing on their racism and sexual anxieties (which had already started happening under Nixon, and which would soon help put Ronald Reagan in the White House).

By now, of course, the left's race/gender reflex -- what rightists call "political correctness" -- is so well-established that nobody even thinks to ask how it arose. Your persistence in attacking us last night struck me as an opportunity to raise that question, which I think is a good one, and worth pondering.

I could see, however, that it really pissed you off -- and it's clear that you're pissed off about it still. I'm sorry it offended you, but there it is.

In other words, I'm sorry you're upset, little lady, but you can't cry away the truth. The academy - which is, of course, where all the important liberal politics really gets done, rather than workplaces, schools, factories, town squares and the streets - had 'identity' politics and 'political correctness' foisted upon it by non-profits with CIA connections.

Never mind that the students of the University of Columbia, for example, went into occupation in 1996 to demand an ethnic studies department. They must have been funded by the secret service too. It's all a plot to stop the real left - which absolutely doesn't include any women or non-white people - from changing the world.

My mistake: I had assumed it was kneejerk, paranoid throwbackery.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.