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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Meet the hot, funny, carefree Cool Mums – the maternal version of the Cool Girl

As new film Bad Moms reveals, what the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy.

I suppose we should all be thankful. Time was when “mum’s night off” came in the form of a KFC value bucket. Now, with the advent of films such as Bad Moms – “from the gratefully married writers of The Hangover” – it looks as though mums are finally getting permission to cut loose and party hard.

This revelation could not come a moment too soon. Fellow mums, you know all those stupid rules we’ve been following? The ones where we think “god, I must do this, or it will ruin my precious child’s life”? Turns out we can say “sod it” and get pissed instead. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore said so.

I saw the trailer for Bad Moms in the cinema with my sons, waiting for Ghostbusters to start. Much as I appreciate a female-led comedy, particularly one that suggests there is virtue in shirking one’s maternal responsibilities, I have to say there was something about it that instantly made me uneasy. It seems the media is still set on making the Mommy Wars happen, pitching what one male reviewer describes as “the condescending harpies that run the PTA” against the nice, sexy mummies who just want to have fun (while also happening to look like Mila Kunis). It’s a set up we’ve seen before and will no doubt see again, and while I’m happy some attention is being paid to the pressures modern mothers are under, I sense that another is being created: the pressure to be a cool mum.

When I say “cool mum” I’m thinking of a maternal version of the cool girl, so brilliantly described in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:

“Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”

The cool girl isn’t like all the others. She isn’t weighed down by the pressures of femininity. She isn’t bothered about the rules because she knows how stupid they are (or at least, how stupid men think they are). She does what she likes, or at least gives the impression of doing so. No one has to feel guilty around the cool girl. She puts all other women, those uptight little princesses, to shame.

What the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy. The cool mum doesn’t bore everyone by banging on about organic food, sleeping habits or potty training. Neither hyper-controlling nor obsessively off-grid, she’s managed to combine reproducing with remaining a well-balanced person, with interests extending far beyond CBeebies and vaccination pros and cons. She laughs in the face of those anxious mummies ferrying their kids to and from a multitude of different clubs, in between making  cupcakes for the latest bake sale and sitting on the school board. The cool mum doesn’t give a damn about dirty clothes or additives. After all, isn’t the key to happy children a happy mum? Perfection is for narcissists.

It’s great spending time with the cool mum. She doesn’t make you feel guilty about all the unpaid drudgery about which other mothers complain. She’s not one to indulge in passive aggression, expecting gratitude for all those sacrifices that no one even asked her to make. She’s entertaining and funny. Instead of fretting about getting up in time to do the school run, she’ll stay up all night, drinking you under the table. Unlike the molly-coddled offspring of the helicopter mum or the stressed-out kids of the tiger mother, her children are perfectly content and well behaved, precisely because they’ve learned that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Mummy’s a person, too.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, just how well this works out. Just as the cool girl manages to meet all the standards for patriarchal fuckability without ever getting neurotic about diets, the cool mum raises healthy, happy children without ever appearing to be doing any actual motherwork. Because motherwork, like dieting, is dull. The only reason any woman would bother with either of them is out of some misplaced sense of having to compete with other women. But what women don’t realise – despite the best efforts of men such as the Bad Moms writers to educate us on this score – is that the kind of woman who openly obsesses over her children or her looks isn’t worth emulating. On the contrary, she’s a selfish bitch.

For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free? That our female bodies are not naturally hairless, odourless, fat-free playgrounds? That the love and devotion we give our children – the very care work that keeps them alive – is not something that just happens regardless of whether or not we’ve had to reimagine our entire selves to meet their needs? No one wants to know about the efforts women make to perform the roles which men have decided come naturally to us. It’s not that we’re not still expected to be perfect partners and mothers. It’s not as though someone else is on hand to pick up the slack if we go on strike. It’s just that we’re also required to pretend that our ideals of physical and maternal perfection are not imposed on us by our position in a social hierarchy. On the contrary, they’re meant to be things we’ve dreamed up amongst ourselves, wilfully, if only because each of us is a hyper-competitive, self-centred mean girl at heart.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be great if the biggest pressures mothers faced really did come from other mothers. Alas, this really isn’t true. Let’s look, for instance, at the situation in the US, where Bad Moms is set. I have to say, if I were living in a place where a woman could be locked up for drinking alcohol while pregnant, where she could be sentenced to decades behind bars for failing to prevent an abusive partner from harming her child, where she could be penalised in a custody case on account of being a working mother – if I were living there, I’d be more than a little paranoid about fucking up, too. It’s all very well to say “give yourself a break, it’s not as though the motherhood police are out to get you”. Actually, you might find that they are, especially if, unlike Kunis’s character in Bad Moms, you happen to be poor and/or a woman of colour.

Even when the stakes are not so high, there is another reason why mothers are stressed that has nothing to do with pressures of our own making. We are not in need of mindfulness, bubble baths nor even booze (although the latter would be gratefully received). We are stressed because we are raising children in a culture which strictly compartmentalises work, home and leisure. When one “infects” the other – when we miss work due to a child’s illness, or have to absent ourselves to express breastmilk at social gatherings, or end up bringing a toddler along to work events – this is seen as a failure on our part. We have taken on too much. Work is work and life is life, and the two should never meet.

No one ever says “the separation between these different spheres – indeed, the whole notion of work/life balance – is an arbitrary construct. It shouldn’t be down to mothers to maintain these boundaries on behalf of everyone else.” Throughout human history different cultures have combined work and childcare. Yet ours has decreed that when women do so they are foolishly trying to “have it all”, ignoring the fact that no one is offering mothers any other way of raising children while maintaining some degree of financial autonomy. These different spheres ought to be bleeding into one another.  If we are genuinely interested in destroying hierarchies by making boundaries more fluid, these are the kind of boundaries we should be looking at. The problem lies not with identities – good mother, bad mother, yummy mummy, MILF – but with the way in which we understand and carry out our day-to-day tasks.

But work is boring. Far easier to think that nice mothers are held back, not by actual exploitation, but by meanie alpha mummies making up arbitrary, pointless rules. And yes, I’d love to be a bad mummy, one who stands up and says no to all that. Wouldn’t we all? I’d be all for smashing the matriarchy, if that were the actual problem here, but it’s not.

It’s not that mummies aren’t allowing each other to get down and party. God knows, we need it. It’s just that it’s a lot less fun when you know the world will still be counting on you to clear up afterwards.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.