In this week’s New Statesman: After Chávez – Despot or Democrat?

PLUS: Jane Shilling on our obsession with raising the perfect child, Mehdi Hasan on Abraham Lincoln, and Rafael Behr’s new series on the "dividing lines" of British politics.

Hugo Chávez: Man against the world

In our cover story this week, we debate the legacy of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s - a socialist hero to some and a bullying despot to others. Richard Gott, the author of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, argues that el comandante has brought hope to Latin America and that his death will ignite our appreciation of his achievements. Rory Carroll – who was the Guardian’s correspondent in Caracas for six years – disagrees, and wonders if the price of change was too high.

Gott writes:

What is not yet understood is that Chávez . . . has been the most significant ruler in Latin America since Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in January 1959, more than half a century ago. Such extraordinary and charismatic people emerge rarely in history; they leave an imprint that lasts for decades . . .

Chávez had great ambitions to improve conditions for Venezuela’s poor and to include them in the national debate . . . His single most significant political initiative, announced on day one, was to call for a progressive constitution, ratified by referendum . . .

This has been Chávez’s lasting legacy, and is the basis of his project to promote “21st-century socialism” in Venezuela and more widely on the continent . . .

Journalistic NGOs and human rights groups complain about what they see as attacks on freedom of the press in Venezuela . . . Nor do we hear much from western journalists about the changing nature of life in the shanty towns, with the spread of health programmes and education opportunities, or the recent construction of housing projects, or the experiments with co-operatives and community councils. Why has Chávez had such a bad press?

Part of the image problem lies with long-surviving caricatures of Latin America in the popular memory that have little relevance to the continent today . . . Yet outside observers have consistently declared Venezuela’s elections to be fair, and Chávez is no Pinochet.

Carroll argues that the case of Maria Lourdes Afiuni – a judge whom Chávez jailed for 30 years, on special orders, after she released a high-profile banker accused of fraud – exposed the president’s tendency to “bully” the state into suppressing those who anger him.

Afiuni’s plight was not typical of Hugo Chávez’s rule. There were no gulags, no mass arrests, no fear of the midnight knock on the door. Chávez did not rule through terror. But when it suited him he bullied the courts into jailing those who challenged or angered him.

He was neither a tyrant nor a democratic liberator but a hybrid, an elected autocrat, and the nuances of that category often escaped his friends and critics abroad . . .

He relied on the ballot box for legitimacy while concentrating power and eroding freedoms, shunting Venezuela into a twilight zone where you could do what you wanted – until the president said you couldn’t . . .

He cemented his rule by rewarding allies. Opportunists, notably senior military officers and the tycoons known as “boligarchs”, got rich manipulating government contracts. Civilian ideologues and Cuba got power and influence. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people got jobs in a bloated bureaucracy. And millions of the poor got social services, scholarships and handouts, notably fridges, tumble dryers and washing machines.

Other Latin American governments knew of the abuses, that elections were free though not fair, but stayed silent.

 

Jane Shilling: Parenting Wars

In the NS Essay this week, author and journalist Jane Shilling examines the multimillion-pound industry devoted to telling you how to raise your child. Peppered with probing recollections of raising her own son as a single working mother, Shilling queries both the “personal” and the “political” crisis of modern parenting.

Even 20 years ago, my unprofessional attitude to bringing up a child was anachronistic; these days I suspect it would be regarded as borderline negligent. Mine was certainly the last generation in which one could allow oneself to muddle along without the assistance of the experts, treating parenthood as though it were analogous to friendship – a relationship that would grow and flourish of
its own accord.

I might have done my best to ignore the fact, but as a single parent I was a fragmentary factor in what has grown into an urgent social crisis around the issues of childhood and family. If ever there was a time when one could raise children unselfconsciously, it is long past. Now every aspect of parenthood, from conception and birth to the forming of intellect and character, is the subject of anxious and often agonised scrutiny.

The crisis is both personal and political. On the one hand, as engaged parents, we
feel that we are in some sense our children: their successes and failures represent us almost more vividly than our own achievements. And as the condition of youth becomes ever more extended, lasting in attenuated form until middle age and beyond, our children can help to feed our vision of ourselves as perennially young.

 

Rafael Behr: Dividing Lines

This week the NS launches a new series – Dividing Lines – in which our political editor, Rafael Behr, will discuss the issues polarising British politics. “The distinction between left and right in Britain looks starker now than at any time in the past 20 years,” he writes.

Over coming weeks, I will look at some of the problems facing Britain and try to decode what the different sides might have to offer by the next election. Sometimes the divergence is stark; often there is more agreement than anyone likes to admit.

Westminster is obsessed with the delineation of dividing lines – the tactical approach to an issue that seeks to define it in crude, binary terms, with the enemy caricatured as holding a view inimical to mainstream opinion. “They” destroy public services; “we” invest. “They” want to spend your money on feckless scroungers; “we” reward hard-working strivers. It is the very substance of modern politics, and the rhetorical dishonesty, that make politics dangerously insubstantial.

The most corrosive force in democracy is the assumption that none of the mainstream candidates deserves endorsement because “they are all the same”. In the weeks to come, we will consider whether that lament is justified in Britain today. Given the scale of the challenge, we must hope it is not.

 

Mehdi Hasan: Today we remember Lincoln as a great redeemer – and that should give Obama hope

In Lines of Dissent, Mehdi Hasan writes on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Though he admits that “I cried” at a preview of the film in Soho, Hasan wonders if we have seen “the whole story”, and makes unavoidable comparisons with today’s “talk, skinny” president, in the week of Obama’s inauguration.

There is nothing new in Spielberg’s depiction of “Honest Abe”. Lincoln has long been considered the greatest ever leader of the United States . . . Spielberg, however, glosses over Lincoln’s earlier, more odious views . . .

Last November, Obama held a screening of Lincoln at the White House and told Time: “Part of what Lincoln teaches us is that to pursue the highest ideals and a deeply moral cause requires you . . . get your hands dirty.”

The problem with Obama has been that, on a host of first-term issues, ranging from the deficit and financial reform to climate change and gun control, he didn’t merely fail to fight dirty – he didn’t put up a fight at all.

As Lincoln showed with the Thirteenth Amendment, it takes only a matter of months to wipe the slate clean and earn a place in the pantheon of great American leaders. America – and the world – are waiting, Mr President.

 

Laurie Penny: What’s the point of smashing the glass ceiling for a few women, when so many live in poverty?

For In the Red this week, Laurie Penny interviews Selma James – the writer and 82-year-old feminist activist – who explains why “class, money and family still matter” in feminist discourse.

Feminism has become identified with breaking the glass ceiling as the central perspective,” she [James] says, “but the speed at which women are entering boardrooms is not half as fast [as that of] women entering prisons for crimes of poverty...”

Conventional wisdom has declared the question of women and money resolved, because they now have the legal right to enter historically male jobs and make a decent wage . . . Today, with austerity hitting women harder than men across all sectors of society, from low-waged workers to mothers receiving child benefit, activists of all stripes are beginning to question, once again, how work and class fit into feminism.

 

In The Critics

  • Our critic at large is poet Julia Copus, writing on the link between physical illness and the creative life.
  • John Gray, writes about The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by the American polymath Jared Diamond.
  • In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the Canadian writer Sheila Heti.
  • Simon Heffer reviews Sorry!, Henry Hitchings’s study of the English and their manners.
  • Alexandra Coghlan reads Alan Rusbridger’s memoir Play It Again.
  • Sarah Churchwell ponders Alone in America, a study of loneliness in American literature.
  • novelist Linda Grant reviews Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death by the Holocaust survivor and historian Otto Dov Kulka.
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews Zero Dark Thirty.
  • Kate Mossman reviews new albums by Nick Cave and Johnny Marr.
  • PLUS: Will Self’s Madness of Crowds column.

Click here to read more from “In the Critics this week”

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Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit