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”

To purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman online visit: subscribe.newstatesman.com

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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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.