Rihanna's BBHMM music video is an example of the Ballardian Atrocity Exhibition. Photo: YouTube Screengrab
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BBC imperialism, the enigma of John Freeman, and Rihanna’s Atrocity Exhibition

The Rihanna video is a prime exhibit in what J G Ballard called modern society’s Atrocity Exhibition.

George Osborne is correct to question the “imperial” ambitions of the BBC and demand that it spend the licence fee with more care. The BBC – especially the excellence of its foreign news and Radio 4 – remains one of the reasons to live in Britain, but overall as an institution it is complacent and excessively bureaucratic, tries to do too much and is obsessed with America. Much has been written denouncing the high pay of senior management. But what about the high pay of the BBC’s so-called talent, the multimillion-pound salaries that have been paid to Jonathan Ross, Jeremy Clarkson and many others?

Why is the “talent” so highly rewarded when so many excellent support staff – ­editors, producers, researchers, sound engineers – have insecure freelance contracts or no contracts at all? Why, in addition to his lavish pension, expenses and management salary, does Alan Yentob, who is 68, receive an additional six-figure fee to present the arts programme Imagine, which often burnishes the reputation of his friends? Why does the BBC website operate as if it is in competition with national newspapers and magazines, which are subject to the cold realities of the market? I value the BBC but it is only right that it be forced to justify its purpose and overhaul its practices. It ought to do much less, and to do what it does better.

 

Free spirit

On Tuesday evening I spoke at the launch of Hugh Purcell’s biography of John Freeman, A Very Private Celebrity. The title is apposite. Married four times, Freeman had even more public roles than wives. He was a war hero, Labour MP, journalist, television interviewer (of Face to Face fame), diplomat (his old friend Harold Wilson appointed him high commissioner to India and then ambassador to the US), media executive (at LWT) and, in retirement, a champion bowls player. And yet he disliked publicity, published no books or autobiographical essays and refused to collaborate with Purcell on a biography. A short while before his death in 2014, Freeman had a conversation with his old friend and colleague Paul Johnson. Resident in a nursing home, Freeman said: “I can hardly hear, I can hardly see, I don’t want to speak to anyone . . . but the food’s not bad.” He remained an enigma to the last.

 

Traffic ahead

In August the New Statesman will launch its new and greatly enhanced website, the latest phase in the transformation of our fortunes. When I became editor I had two models in mind: the American magazine the Atlantic, which after much struggle had successfully reinvented itself as a modern print and digital title, and the New Statesman as it was during the 1950s and 1960s, when John Freeman worked on it (he succeeded Kingsley Martin as editor in 1961).

Yet, somewhere along the way, in the years following Martin’s retirement and Freeman’s departure, the NS lost ­something of its sceptical intelligence as well as its authority. By the early 1980s, it was running out of money and, during subsequent periods of crisis, was captured by vested interests, from the extra-parliamentary left to the Labour Party. But now, with magazine sales rising and our website traffic at a record high, I’m delighted to say our journalism is reaching more readers than ever before – and without public subsidy.

 

Rihanna slashes across the line

Without wishing to sound like a high court judge, dare I offer a few words on the young Bajan pop sensation Rihanna, who has become one of the world’s most famous women, having sold more digital downloads than any other recording artist. Her shtick is to shock and outrage while keeping just on the right side of the line of pop-cultural acceptability. Perhaps for the first time, in her new video, the elegantly titled “Bitch Better Have My Money”, which she co-directed, she crosses that line. The video is a work of grotesque misogyny, as my colleague Helen Lewis wrote in a blog on our website. It features an attractive white woman – tall, tanned, blonde cascading hair, obligatory silicone-enhanced breasts – who is kidnapped, stripped naked and tortured by “Rihanna” and two female associates. There is seemingly no limit to the indignities inflicted upon her.

The kidnapping is an act of revenge. The blonde is the partner of a rich white guy who has swindled “Rihanna” out of some money – hence the title. During the torture scenes, the women smoke, swig alcohol and get high on crystal meth. It ends with a murder: a naked, blood-spattered “Rihanna” coolly carves up the swindler with a butcher’s knife. Its influences include hardcore pornography, gangsta rap and the NBC television series Hannibal. The last time I checked, the video had been watched more than 14 million times, and Helen has been serially abused on Twitter for having the temerity to denounce its misogyny.

 

Ballard the prophet

The Rihanna video is a prime exhibit in what J G Ballard called modern society’s Atrocity Exhibition. Ballard’s best work was published in a pre-internet era but he anticipated today’s media landscape, in which representations of sex and violence have become all-pervasive, and we are tyrannised by the instantly accessible and endlessly shareable and repeatable digital image. Events such as the murder of British tourists on a Tunisian beach by a self-styled warrior of God, the immolation of a caged Jordanian military pilot by the Isis terror group, and a naked blonde model being tortured in the name of mainstream mass entertainment have become as much part of the white noise of our everyday lives as the football results or the weather forecast.

The result is the creation of a peculiarly disturbed collective psychopathology and what Ballardians call a “mediatised reality”, in thrall to the pornography of violence. We’ve travelled a long way indeed from the NS of the 1950s. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

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