Emily Wilding Davison.
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Laurie Penny on the suffragettes: Emily Wilding Davison made the only choice she could bear

She made herself intolerable to a system she found impossible to tolerate.

It took Emily Davison four days to die. The injuries that the women’s liberation activist sustained when, a century ago, she leapt in front of the king’s racehorse at the Epsom Derby were not enough to kill her outright. She died in hospital on 8 June 1913 amid public condemnation; the queen mother sent her apologies to the jockey that his race had been interrupted by a “brutal lunatic woman” demanding, of all crazy things, the vote.

Parliament and the press were agreed: this was not legitimate protest, but a “mad act”, according to the Morning Post. What could prompt a person to do such a thing? Davison was born in Blackheath, London, in 1872, studied literature at Royal Holloway for as long as she could afford the fees, and then worked as a governess before joining the Women’s Social and Political Union – what we now call the suffragette movement – fulltime at the age of 32. She obtained the maximum amount of education and personal freedom permitted to a middle-class woman of her generation and it wasn’t enough. I imagine it felt a bit like drowning.

In old footage of the suffragettes, they look like a gang of angry bantams, flapping about in their outsized hats and ridiculous full skirts. The very word “suffragettes” sounds like the kind of fusty, village-hall girl band your auntie might sing in at weekends, rather than a revolutionary organisation whose members were prepared to die so that others might live free. The grudging account of the women’s liberation movement in official histories refers to force-feeding, but edits out the full extent of the torture of activists who were considered mad terrorists for asking that the state treat women of all classes as rational human beings.

Some historians mention that Davison had been reckless with her safety on other occasions as evidence that she was “merely” suicidal, arguing that she desired to die under any circumstances and that this somehow invalidates her decision to do so in public while waving the banner of women’s suffrage. Davison certainly had form for doing outrageous things in the name of women’s liberation. She was arrested nine times – for arson, for public nuisance and for throwing stones at the prime minister’s carriage.

During her imprisonment, when she and other activists were being force-fed – a process that was agonising and degrading and sometimes involved anal rape with metal tubes – she threw herself down an iron staircase in protest. In retaliation for her refusal to co-operate, the guards put a hosepipe into her cell and slowly filled it with water until she almost drowned.

Try to imagine, just for a second, what that must have been like. How long must it have taken for the cell to fill with freezing water, closing around your ankles, your knees, then your chest, your impractical skirts first buoying you up and then dragging you down? How long would it take until the choking, numbing water did not drown your nightmares every time you tried to sleep? What might it mean, under such circumstances, to be crazy, to be consumed with rage, to have a death wish?

Madness is often political. There are situations in which extreme emotional distress is the only rational response to overwhelming circumstance, where “sanity” is little more than the medical term for acquiescence. Women in the early 20th century, a time when female sexual and social freedom was pathologised, frequently went insane, killed themselves or suffered debilitating “nerves”, as documented by writers such as Zelda Fitzgerald and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Frequently those who rebelled in more tangible ways, by acting out, sleeping around or refusing to submit to men in the home or workplace, were declared insane and sent away to rot in asylums by their spouses and relatives. For many middle-class women, the suffragette sash became a way of organising sentiments that would otherwise have been sectionable. Undoubtedly, by the standards of her day, Emily Davison was deranged, her entire life a “mad act” – yet that does not make it illogical.

Oppressive systems are not all of a kind. They do, however, share an indifference to those whose inability to bear the privations of the imposed social order results in collapse, breakdown and death. The present British government, to give one example, has accustomed itself to the suicides of poor and disabled people cut off by its austerity programme. It encourages a narrative which suggests that such people are “merely” disturbed, that benefit recipients are selfish “scroungers”. What such systems cannot cope with is those who are able, by virtue of circumstance or force of personality, to turn that rage and distress outwards, rather than letting it consume them from within.

Such people often become known to the police. We call them rebels, or activists, or colossal bloody headaches, depending on our point of view and place of employment. Emily Wilding Davison made trouble. She made herself intolerable to a system she found impossible to tolerate. It is thanks to women like her, and the few men who supported them, that far fewer of us today know what it is to be forced to submit to a husband, to be politically disenfranchised, to be denied the right to control our own bodies and our own children – though that work is far from complete. There are situations in which you can choose to toss yourselves under the hooves of history, or choose to drown. Emily Davison made the only choice she could bear. We should remember that, when we remember her.

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 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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No, Jeremy Corbyn is not antisemitic – but the left should be wary of who he calls friends

The Labour MP's tendency to seek out unsavoury comrades is a symptom of an intellectual and political malady: the long-term ideological corruption of that part of the left in which he was formed.

“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers,” said the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. “He’s one who asks the right questions.”

The British novelist Howard Jacobson is not a scientist, but he has asked the right question about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the improbable-but-likely next leader of the Labour party. Here it is:  “Why can’t we oppose the inequities of a society weighted in favour of wealth, and all the trash that wealth accumulates, without at the same time having to snuggle up to Putin, pal out with Hamas, and make apologies for extremists?”

One answer to the Jacobson Question has been offered by Yasmin Alibhai Brown, a defender of Corbyn. His “tendency for unchecked inclusiveness”, as she delicately puts it, is due to his “naivety”. But that explanation will not do. We won’t find the answer in one man’s naivety, especially not a 67-year-old with a lifetime of political experience behind him.

We must go deeper, reading Corbyn’s undoubted tendency to snuggle, to pal out and to apologise as a symptom of an intellectual and political malady: the long-term ideological corruption of that part of the left in which he was formed.

This corrupting ideology can be called “campism”. It has caused parts of the left to abandon  universal progressive values rooted in the Enlightenment and sign up instead as foot soldiers in what they see as the great contest between – these terms change over time, as we will see – “Progressive” versus “Reactionary” nations, “Imperialism” versus “Anti-Imperialism”,  “Oppressed” versus “Oppressor” peoples, “The Empire” versus “The Resistance”, or simply “Power” versus “The Other”.

Again and again, the curse of campism has dragged the political left down from the position of intellectual leader and agenda-setter to that of political irrelevance, or worse, an apologist for tyranny. 

Only when we register the grip of this ideology will we understand why some leftwingers march around London waving placards declaring “We are all Hezbollah now!”. Only the power of the ideology accounts for the YouGov poll that showed 51 per cent of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters believe America is the “greatest single threat to world peace”, and one in four think a “secretive elite” controls the globe.

The intellectual history of campism has three chapters.  

In the short 20th century, it took the form of Stalinism, a social system that was at once anti-capitalist and totalitarian, and that spread a set of corrupting mental habits that utterly disorientated the left.

Clinging to the dogma that it must have been some kind of socialism that had replaced capitalism, many imagined themselves to be involved in a “great contest” between the capitalist camp and the (imperfect) socialist camp. And that ruined them. They became critical supporters of totalitarianism – notwithstanding their knowledge of the show trials, mass killings, gulags, political famines, and military aggressions; notwithstanding the fact that they themselves were not totalitarians.

The result was the slow erasure of those habits of mind, sensibilities and values of an older leftwing culture rooted in the Enlightenment. In its place the Stalinist-campist left posited lesser-evilism, political cynicism, power-worship, authoritarianism, and sophisticated apologias for tyranny.

In the Sixties and Seventies, the New Left created liberatory social movements that changed the face of the western world for the better. But the New Left was also a cheerleader or apologist for one third world authoritarian “progressive” regime after another, including Maoist China, a monstrous regime responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of “its own” people. Believing the world was divided into an imperialist “centre” exploiting a “periphery”, the New Left thought its duty was to support the latter against the former.

And when the baby boomers grew older and made their way into the universities and publishing houses, they formed the global creative class that has been reshaping every aspect of our intellectual culture ever since. Again, much of that reshaping has been a boon. Schooling us all in the anti-imperialism of idiots, and the romantic cult of the transformative power of revolutionary violence, has not.

After 1989, much of the left didn’t miss a beat. It quickly developed a theory that the world was now made up of a “Resistance” to “Empire”. Here was yet another reductive dualism. But this time there was barely any positive content at all, so campism took the shape of spectacularly inchoate and implacable negativism.

The result has been immense political disorientation, political cross-dressing, and moral debasement across swathes of the left. How else to explain the leftwing social theorist Judith Butler’s astonishing claim that, “understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important”?

When we understand how campism creates that kind of ideology-saturated and captive mind, we can better understand Corbyn’s choice of comrades and answer the Jacobson Question. 

The ideology demands two commitments. First, “Down With Us!” – the commitment to oppose the West as malign. Second, “Victory to the Resistance!” – the commitment to side with, or to apologise for, or to refuse to criticise, any “resistance” to the West.

The commitment to oppose every projection of force by the West as malign underpins Corbyn’s commitments to unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from Nato, his attitude to the IRA, and to Putin, and his false equating of the actions of Isis and the coalition in Iraq.

Corbyn will withdraw the UK from Nato because it is the military organisation of the West and therefore “imperialist”. He turns the world inside out and “blames the USA and Nato rather than Putin’s imperialistic Russia for the crisis in Ukraine,” notes Labour MP Mike Gapes.

I believe Corbyn would lead Britain into a warmer relationship with Putin’s Russia, and even thinks it was a bad thing that Poland was ever “allowed” to join Nato.

Astonishingly, given recent history, he also argues that Poland should have, “gone down the road Ukraine went down in 1990”. Corbyn opposes all military support to Ukraine and seems quite uninterested in the Ukrainian bid for freedom from Russian control. What matters much more to him is adherence to the campist ideology: “The self-satisfied pomposity of western leaders in lecturing the world about morality and international law has to be challenged,” he rails.

Campism also explains Corbyn’s comparison of the actions of Isis today and the actions of the coalition forces during the Iraq war. And those comments have a precedent of sorts. Corbyn was national chair of Stop the War during the Iraq war when the leadership circulated a statement that supported the “right” of the “resistance” to use “whatever means they find necessary”. At that point, the so-called resistance was targeting democrats, including the free trade union leader Hadi Saleh.

The second commitment of the campist left has been to side with, or apologise for, or refuse to sharply criticise, the so-called resistance camp. Without understanding this, Corbyn’s apologies for the Muslim cleric Raed Salah remain a mystery, his attitude to the IRA or the antisemitic Islamist terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah will seem harmless, even ahead-of-his-time diplomacy, and the idea that he indulges antisemitism will appear to be a “slur” by a “lobby”.

Corbyn has defended the antisemitic Raed Salah in these terms: “He represents his people extremely well and his is a voice that must be heard . . . I look forward to giving you tea on the terrace because you deserve it.”

In fact, Salah was found guilty of spreading the blood libel – the classic antisemitic slander that Jews use the blood of gentile children to make their bread – reportedly during a speech on February 2007 in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Wadi Joz.

Corbyn said he has no memory of meeting Dyab Abou Jahjah. Within minutes, Twitter was running photographs of Corbyn sitting next to Abou Jahjah – the Lebanese extremist who said, “I consider every death of an American, British or Dutch soldier as a victory” – at a public meeting.

Jahjah then boasted on Twitter of his “collaboration with Jeremy Corbyn” and insisted that Corbyn was “absolutely a political friend”. Again, it seems that Jahjah, being part of the “resistance camp”, according to the ideology, was simply beyond criticism.

It did not seem to matter that Jahjah reportedly referred to gay people as “Aids spreading fagots”, and was arrested in Antwerp for organising a riot. Or that he claimed to have published anti-Jewish cartoons showing Hitler and 15-year-old Anne Frank naked in bed with the caption: “Put that in your diary Anne”.

As the Community Security Trust commented: “I am sure that Corbyn would be the first to condemn Holocaust denial. The problem is not that Corbyn is an antisemite or a Holocaust denier – he is neither. The problem is that he seems to gravitate towards people who are, if they come with an anti-Israel sticker on them.”

Hezbollah comes with the mother of all anti-Israel stickers. That is why – although Corbyn knows that it is a radical Shia militant group that has subverted Lebanese democracy, actively supported Bashar al-Assad's brutality in Syria, and seeks the destruction of Israel – he nonetheless (and campism is a politics of “nonetheless”) tells the left that Hezbollah are our “friends”.

Hamas too. Corbyn also calls the Palestinian Islamist group his “friends” and argues that the organisation should not be called “terrorist”. Yet Corbyn knows that Amnesty International believes Hamas to be guilty of war crimes, torture, abductions, and summarily killing civilians. He knows that when five Jews praying in a synagogue were murdered, along with the heroic Druze policeman who came to their aid, in 2014, Hamas welcomed the attack, calling it a “quality development”. They even called it a “terror attack” – embracing the label Corbyn says they do not deserve.

The problem is not that Corbyn agrees with what all these people say. It is that he agrees with who they are: the Resistance to Empire. The apologies and the contortions and the evasions all begin there.

And then there are the Jews.

The concern here is not that Corbyn indulges in antisemitism. He does not. The concern is that he is has associated with others who have. The concern is that, when he is faced with what is called the “new antisemitism”, he is lost. At best, he is an innocent abroad who – oddly, in the age of “Google it!” – can’t seem to work out who is who, or what is what.

Writing for openDemocracy about Corbyn, Keith Kahn-Harris expresses scepticism about Corbyn’s explanation of his choice of comrades. “Although he has defended his contacts with Islamists, the IRA and others as a contribution to peace-making,” Kahn-Harris notes. “Corbyn does not have the deep relationships across the spectrum [or] the even-handedness that this would entail.”

What strikes Kahn-Harris most about Corbyn’s record is something else entirely: that he “is constantly predisposed to be at least convivial towards a broad swathe of those who see themselves as opposed to ‘the west’.”

He goes on: “Much of what appears to be [Corbyn’s] openness does indeed reflect engrained political pathologies.”

And that has been the claim of this essay, too: we have to look to those ingrained political pathologies – I have used the short-hand label “campism” to describe them – to answer the Jacobson Question.

Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region and senior research fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM).