But some men do get it: Bulgarians in high heels run during "Walk a Mile in Her Shoes", in Sofia, on 8 March, as part of an international awareness campaign over rape. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on the men who think feminists and foreigners want to wipe them out

The mindset that believes, against all evidence, that governments are just desperate to give money to anyone who isn’t white, male and a citizen.

Some of my best friends are straight, white men. I like them a lot. I even have one or two in my family and we often manage to spend time together without me awkwardly bringing up demographics. I say this because I want you to know that I’m not a hater. Some people, you see, seem to believe that men, particularly white men, are under attack.

On 15 March, a “white man march”, led by those who believe that “white Americans are being attacked at almost every level”, apparently took place in several North American cities. I write “apparently” because, despite a great deal of publicity and increasingly deranged soundbites from the event’s organisers, only a few photos have surfaced of white men actually marching anywhere and they mostly feature cross-looking chaps in ill-fitting jeans holding up signs about “white genocide”, which isn't a real thing. The group was mocked around the world, laughter being one of the few cultural defences against the sort of fledgling neo-fascism that really isn’t funny, even when it gets lost down a backstreet in Kansas with a wonky banner.

In a time of technological change and economic uncertainty, in which everyone has the right to a vicious opinion but few have a secure job, the type of bigotry that finds followers is blundering, resentful and prone to sprawling online tantrums that spill on to the streets. We’ve heard the arguments before but they breed in the echo chambers of the internet. The new bigots believe that “foreigners” and “feminazis” are stripping poor, defenceless white men of the privilege they were raised to expect and therefore obviously deserve.

The less evidence there is for such assertions, the more they are clung to as articles of faith. Feminism, for instance, is not in reality a strategy cooked up by left-wing women so we can take all of men’s power and money for ourselves and turn them into sex slaves. I know this because, if it was, I would be sitting on a gigantic golden throne with oiled flunkies feeding me chocolate biscuits, rather than having the same arguments over and over again with angry gentlemen who seem to think that there is a set amount of privilege to go around and that if they have less of it, someone else must have more.

Some months ago, in a nondescript London coffee shop, I met Mike Buchanan, a “men’s rights” activist and the leader of the small, single-issue party Justice for Men and Boys. The former procurement worker, in his mid-fifties, was dragging a suitcase – he described himself as between homes and without a stable job and was moving from one friend’s sofa to another’s that day. It was only a few years ago, when he was looking for work and “a huge woman” turned him down for a job in public-sector procurement, that Buchanan realised that women had too much power.

“I think men are trashed, as you go down the social scale,” was one of the first things he told me. “As you go down the social scale, men are totally disposable. A man on the minimum wage – what chance does he have?”

If white men are finding themselves adrift in an uncertain world, it is not the fault of feminism, or of anti-racism. Just because the rise of a new wave of feminist and anti-racist campaigning has coincided with the collapse of modern economic certainties, it does not mean that one caused the other. But instead of getting angry at the state or at the systems that deny working people of every race and gender the right to a decent living, some prefer to kick down – at women or minorities, who must surely have taken all the good jobs and safe places to live.

This is the mindset that believes, against all evidence to the contrary, that governments are just desperate to give money to anyone who isn’t white, male and a citizen, presenting immigrants with free cars and women with free houses for daring to give birth outside marriage, another feminist plot. It is not unique to fringe groups, who find their conspiracy theories backed up in the tabloids. With absolute certainty, Buchanan told me “Any woman out there can get pregnant in a pub car park tonight and she knows she’ll get accommodation for life.” I reminded him that this is not the case and never has been, whatever the Daily Mail might say. “OK,” he said, “perhaps I’m exaggerating.”

Behind the stuttering rage of men’s rights activists is a simple, human yearning for respect and security. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for them. Then they come out, as Buchanan did, with statements such as: “Feminists have lied outrageously, shamelessly, about rape statistics.” Buchanan supports and writes for the site A Voice For Men, which recently campaigned to shut down a site designed to help students at Occidental College in the US report rape and assault without fearing for their own safety. He told me that A Voice For Men “totally has its fingers on the pulse”. And that, I’m afraid, was the point at which my compassion ran out.

Being raised to expect special treatment because of your race or gender doesn't make you a bad person.  A lot of my friends really are straight, white men, and most of them aspire to be decent human beings, and many of them struggle every day with how to negotiate their own privilege and find models of masculinity they can live with in a world where they find themselves less powerful and more vulnerable than they ever expected. I played a couple of them parts of my interview with Mike Buchanan, and I watched them cringe.

“I was a bit like that guy once,” said one friend, after I recounted the story of the Buchanan interview. “I was raised on that middle class, nuclear family story. It sounds like it would have been a nice life. I feel like I was programmed for a world that no longer exists and now I have to recalibrate. That’s my work to do. And it sucks. It hurts and you want to be angry and you want to blame somebody.” Somehow, not everyone ends up blaming wicked women and grasping migrants for every problem they face. 

Many of the fringe reactionaries are convinced that the raw deal they’re getting is the fault of women and ethnic minorities. They believe that the hurt feelings of white men excuse any amount of recreational racism and sexism and the presence of their ridiculous propaganda in the sphere of public debate does huge damage. Yet the greatest damage they do is to people of their own demographic who cannot begin to speak about their own experience of race and gender without running into a pile of vintage prejudice polished with resentment for the digital age, with a few bad stats and banners thrown in As long as the frothingly prejudiced continue to dominate all discussion of what it means to be a man, or to be white, or to be both, that conversation will flounder, will continue to be bogged down by doubt and dogma long after everyone else has begun to move on. The new bigotry may be cringing and inept, but that doesn’t make it harmless. The greatest trick the devil ever played was to convince the world that he was a bloody idiot.

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

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change