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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.