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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“We can’t run away from Brexit”: Labour MP Bambos Charalambous warns his party

The new MP for Enfield Southgate on how he won a Tory seat, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and being a celebrity in Cyprus.

Enfield Southgate is an iconic location in election night history. It was this suburban tip of north London that played host to 1997’s “Portillo moment”, when the then Defence Secretary Michael Portillo – tipped to be Tory leader – lost his seat in a shock defeat. Stephen Twigg, the Labour candidate who won with a 17.4 per cent swing, became the rather stunned face of Labour’s landslide.

Twenty years later, the constituency went unexpectedly to Labour again. Bambos Charalambous, a local councillor for 23 years who attended the ’97 count, defeated the Conservative David Burrowes who had been MP there since 2005.

As the first MP of full Cypriot descent, Charalambous has been warmly invited into the BME MPs’ WhatsApp group. But he doesn’t have an office yet, so he’s squatting in his old friend Twigg’s office. Luckily, as a housing lawyer, “I know my rights,” he jokes. He was a solicitor on Hackney Council’s housing litigation team until he was elected.

We settle instead at a table in Parliament’s glass-walled Portcullis House. Charalambous – whose full name is so wonderful that the Huffington Post points out you can sing it to “Copacabana” and “Mambo Italiano” – looks smart in a suit and silky maroon tie. He is also very tanned; he took his parents on holiday to Rome at the beginning of the campaign – booked for their anniversary before the election was called.

“I’m very popular in Cyprus at the moment”

Brought up in Enfield, which has a large Cypriot community, Charalambous has lived there all his life. He’s now a bit of a local celebrity; his friends and family have started taking pictures with him at every opportunity.

“I’m very popular in Cyprus at the moment,” he says, rather deadpan. “It’s a bit surreal when your relatives are asking for selfies with you. My cousin had a christening a couple of weeks ago, and my cousins and uncles and aunts wanted selfies with me. I was like, ‘Are you guys insane? You’ve got pictures of me wearing shorts and stuff!’ So it’s quite amusing.”

To be fair, they’ve been waiting a while to celebrate. Charalambous ran for the seat in 2010 and 2015, but couldn’t beat the Tories. And abysmal polling for Labour initially suggested this wouldn’t change.

“People told me at the start of the campaign, ‘you’re mad, you shouldn’t run, you’re going to ruin your reputation’,” he reveals. “I was like, ‘I don’t care what you say, I’ve run before and I think I deserve to give it another go, and you never know what’s going to happen’.”

“I was initially sceptical about Jeremy. I’m happy to say I’ve been proved wrong”

He won the seat by 4,355 votes, with a swing of 9.7 per cent, and gives a variety of reasons for his victory. Firstly, he was a Remainer running in a pro-EU seat (63 per cent voted Remain) against a Brexiteer Tory. He also found “young people enthused” by the campaign and “dragging” their parents out to vote, which he hadn’t seen before. Local schools are facing budget cuts, and he felt the Tories’ “complacency” about the problem harmed them electorally.

But he also has Jeremy Corbyn to thank. “The manifesto was fantastic,” he says. “I think Jeremy as the leader, he came into his own during the election period and his stature just grew and grew and he will be a credible Prime Minister . . . through the television debates, people could finally see he could answer questions directly. He wasn't fazed by them, and gave good answers and had something to say. He also gave a vision of hope and optimism.”

Although Charalambous supported Andy Burnham to be Labour leader in 2015, he now gives Corbyn his “100 per cent support”. “I didn’t have a problem with the policies. I was initially sceptical about whether Jeremy could be a strong, credible leader,” he admits. “Clearly he is. I’m happy to say I’ve been proved wrong . . . If there were an election tomorrow, or in a few months down the line, Jeremy will be Prime Minister.”

Charalambous says a lot of his constituents who are EU nationals, or have European partners, are worried about their future. He will be focusing on this, and says Brexit should “clearly” be a priority for Labour. He warns his party that, “we can’t run away from Brexit; that’s a big priority”.

But even before he’s spoken up in the Commons about the stickiest subject in British politics, his name is already up there “with the greats”, he grins. “Barry Manilow – ‘Copacabana’”.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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