England captain Alastair Cook (R) and teammate James Anderson walk off the pitch after defeating India in the fourth Test match between England and India, 9 August. Photo: Getty
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The true meaning of success – and why we should never listen to the impatient mob

After England’s defeat by India in the second Test at Lord’s, almost every leading voice in English cricket called for Alastair Cook to be sacked as captain. 

It takes bravery, in a crisis, not to make a decision. In How Doctors Think, Jerome Groopman thanks his mentor for the memorable advice: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

After England’s defeat by India in the second Test at Lord’s, almost every leading voice in English cricket called for Alastair Cook to be sacked as captain. This quorum included the former England captains Mike Atherton, Michael Vaughan and Geoffrey Boycott. The combined wisdom of English cricket’s top table was reinforced by a shouty strand of public opinion, still smarting from the departure of its hero Kevin Pietersen (who also called for Cook to resign).

So the selectors and the England and Wales Cricket Board deserve special praise for the constancy they showed in sticking with Cook. They had to be resolute against two different constituencies: the tribal elders, chanting for change with the gloom and authority of a Greek chorus, and the electronic mob of social media.

There are several wider lessons to be learned from the captaincy furore (now happily subsided after a splendid England victory in the subsequent match in Southampton). First, if all options for change are unsatisfactory, take none of them. Many pundits called for Cook to be sacked but were unable to propose an alternative who would strengthen the team. Who should captain England instead? “Anybody!” came the reply. It did not sound like a good trade.

Second, we forget that many successful performers took a long time to become established, nearly getting sacked en route. Observing success plays tricks with our memories; once it has happened, it seems inevitable. The locus classicus is Alex Ferguson and Manchester United’s fateful FA Cup tie at Nottingham in January 1990 that saved his managerial skin – but the phenomenon is not unknown in cricket. Allan Border, the captain who built the great Australian dynasty of the 1990s, had a disappointing string of early results, including a heavy Test series defeat to England in 1985.

Artistic success can also rely on the faith of employers in the context of troubling results. Hilary Mantel, now feted as a double winner of the Man Booker Prize and whose books are making a tidy profit for HarperCollins, first published several books that lost money. They were encouragingly reviewed and admired by her fans. From a narrow business perspective, however, Mantel only became a major “success” with the publication of Wolf Hall. If Mantel, her agent or her publisher had been guided by sales evidence alone, her later triumphs would have remained locked in her private imaginative world, or unread in a desk drawer. “Track record” – whether Cook’s seven defeats in nine Test matches, or Mantel’s sequence of books that stayed in the red – may be evidence of something. But it does not predict the future.

Finally, the true nature of public opinion is easy to misunderstand. It is a serious mistake to think that we can measure the views of the majority whose opinions seldom register on social media. Early this summer, this column drew attention to how 20 per cent of the comments on the Guardian’s website come from just 0.0037 per cent of its declared monthly audience. In tracking the views of “the public”, we overestimate the representativeness of a tiny minority.

That point was underlined during the victorious third Test in Southampton, in which Cook made 165 runs (only once out) and captained a perfect England performance. The crowd took the opposite view to the newspapers that claim to represent England fans. Cook was cheered all the way to the middle at the toss, then greeted by a standing ovation when he returned to the pavilion 48 not out at lunch on the first day. The England coach, Peter Moores, conceded that he had never seen Cook more moved than after that spontaneous act of collective support. Another standing ovation followed when he walked off, having made 95. The atmosphere of the post-match victory ceremony was driven by deep respect for the England captain.

All of this warmth and considered hope (crowds do not encourage players whom they have given up on) stand in marked contrast to the anger that sustains easy headlines and Twitter storms. Yet who better represents the entire community of English cricket: a social media poll or the fans who lifted the England captain with their hearts and their applause?

“Because half a dozen grasshoppers, under a fern, make the field ring with their importunate clink,” Edmund Burke pointed out, “while thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.”

We should contrast the mob’s approach with how real success is achieved. The mob ignores the structures and culture that underpin lasting success, focusing only on the cult of a redemptive leader, the man who – it is supposed – will cure everything just by clapping his hands with conviction.

The mob listens to people whom other people listen to, ignoring whether the speaker has sound judgement, let alone a history of being right. The mob forgets that it first railed against the same leaders it now romanticises.

The mob gives voice and authority to those it once dispossessed, so long as the target is today’s status quo: its enemy’s enemy is its friend. The mob is not concerned with improvement, only with change, as though the two were the same thing.

If Alastair Cook becomes a great England captain, we should remember what the mob said – and credit the people who resisted it. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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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.