A shed of one's own

We need to be more open about issues facing men.

We need to talk about men and we don’t do so. Quite often, because of the cultures of both modern men and women, it’s because we can’t.

Even to suggest that there are issues among men that might need talking through is a minor heresy: being a white male is like playing a computer game on “easy mode” – men are the patriarchy. Not only do we sail easily into the elite, with great jobs and pay, we’re also responsible for a huge number of problems faced by other groups.

For some men, all of the above is true. Looking at the very top of society, you could imagine it was the case for huge numbers. But it's not the case for everyone: millions of men are losing out and their situation is getting steadily worse each year. And all too often, it’s happening below the radar.

Despite the focus on the real and severe impact of the UK’s austerity measures on women, men were more likely to be unemployed before the downturn and still are.

Men are more likely than women to be the victims of violence and far more likely to be in jail. Year after year, boys’ school attainment falls behind that of girls, as does their chances of getting into university.

It goes further. There is still a pay gap between the genders for those under 30 – but men are lagging behind women. Given what’s happening in education, this could sustain and even worsen in the coming decades.

Are these problems the fault of women, or feminism? Of course not. Do they mean that it’s time for women (and men) to stop fighting for social justice, access to abortions, an end to domestic and sexual violence and more? No.

But why should the problems of one group only be addressed and discussed if they are caused by another? We certainly don’t do so for race: black-on-black violence is recognised as the genuine social problem it is and efforts are made to tackle it. Similarly, few suggest that the staggering level of black youth unemployment – in excess of 50 per cent for men – is simply down to racism. It’s far more complex than that.

So it is with many of the challenges facing modern feminists and the problems faced by many men. The pay gap for women over 30 is now far more about access to childcare – an issue that surely could unite men and women – and choice of profession and primary care-giver, rather than outright prejudice.

Right now, too much of the conversation around what’s going on with men is left to people who’d either prefer to go back to 1950 or who think feminism’s battles are won.

But if we will take the time to acknowledge complex issues for women, why not for men? The game need not be zero-sum: things that benefit men need not come at the cost of women, nor vice versa.

Our uneasiness about bloke talk has wider problems. Take cancer as an example. Breast cancer killed 11,556 UK women in 2009, while prostate cancer killed nearly as many men (10,382). But despite their broadly similar mortality rates, breast cancer receives nearly three times as much site-specific research funding as prostate cancer.

The reason for this is a positive one: the "sisterhood" is a positive image and one used to fundraise aggressively for an excellent cause. Women’s-only fundraisers and races are increasingly common – not just for cancer but for other causes.

Being a strong and successful woman might still be loaded with a huge amount of baggage around appearance and more that men don’t have to face but it’s almost unquestionably a positive image.

Seeing a group of strong men as part of a "brotherhood" is not nearly such a positive image, reeking of conspiracy and cabal. Any club or society that only admits men is (possibly rightly) pilloried.

Success as a man is for many of us loaded with the guilt that comes from having it easy – and talk about male culture too quickly slides into chauvinism.

It’s a confusing welter of mixed signals that leads to no decent sense of male culture and male identity – something that is surely a contributing factor to the problems set out above.

The “battle of the sexes” is a cliché with a lot to answer for. It’s a fake battle that we should all be tired of fighting. Surely allowing for room to think about and discuss men, masculinity and what’s going wrong with it is legitimate. If it led to creative thinking or solutions to violence, imprisonment or low attainment, men would certainly not be the only beneficiaries.

Give men a bit of space to think, to discuss, to write – a shed of one’s own, as it were – and we might all come out better off.

James Ball is a journalist for the Guardian

Sisterhood: this "pink Zumbathon party" was held to raise money for Breakthrough Breast Cancer. London, October 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

James Ball is special correspondent at Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder