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Galliano’s fashionable beliefs: Laurie Penny on an act of hypocrisy

The problem with racism and sexism in fashion goes far beyond one slurring fantasist.

The fashion industry is a vacuous sausage factory that minces down the bodies of vulnerable young people, tosses in handfuls of unexamined prejudice and squeezes out glistening parcels of expensive self-hatred. There is also, as Hunter S Thompson might have said, a negative side.

This week, after an alleged anti-Semitic verbal assault by the Dior designer John Galliano in a Paris bar, an earlier video emerged of him ranting about Jews and women. "I love Hitler. People like you would be dead today," he tells two horrified women. "Your mothers, your forefathers, would be fucking gassed and fucking dead."

Fashion people everywhere rushed to check their hair before joining the chorus of dismay, almost as if racism and sexism were not the stock-in-trade of their industry. In fact, it is an open secret in high fashion that black and minority ethnic faces - alongside women whose ribs cannot be counted through their rattan tops, or "fat mummies" in the phraseology of Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld - are not welcome. The few working black models accuse fashion houses of declining to hire them on the basis of skin tone - model agencies recently suggested that perhaps consumers just don't like looking at black people.

Diversity in fashion is going backwards. The recent fashion week in New York, one of the most multicultural places on the planet, featured 85 per cent white models, a proportion that has hardly changed in a decade. Recent high-profile campaigns have showcased white models in blackface, and when real black models do make it on to the pages of magazines, the airbrushing invariably lightens their colouring and straightens their hair into more marketable, Caucasian styles. Then we wonder why anxious teenagers across the world are using dangerous toxins to bleach the blackness out of their skin.

Frock horror

What should shock is not just the substance of Galliano's comments, but the fact that it took a man being caught on camera explicitly saying that he loves Hitler for the fashion industry to acknowledge a teeny problem with racism. The rabid misogyny of Galliano's outburst has hardly been commented on because, while most people now acknowledge that anti-Semitism isn't very nice, the jury is still out on institutional sexism.

The misogyny of fashion culture, however, exceeds its apparent conviction that any woman with the temerity to do more than silently starve herself is abhorrent. Silent complicity surrounds the rapes and sexual assaults that are routine in the industry. When the designer Anand Jon was last year found guilty on 16 counts of rape and sexual battery of models as young as 14, the only surprise expressed by fashion insiders was that his victims had dared to come forward at all.

The pearl-clutching piety of the response to Galliano's ugly outburst is a primer in tasteful hypocrisy. High-profile fashion colleagues eventually expressed discomfort with his viewpoint, if that's an appropriate term for the sort of drooling monologue normally delivered by a park-bench pervert with two hands down his pants. The problem with racism and sexism in fashion, however, goes far beyond one slurring fantasist.

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 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.