When to take a leak, abuse in Ambridge, and Ian McEwan’s identity supermarket

First thoughts on Cameron and the Panama Papers, Caitlyn Jenner, and The Archers.

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A few months ago, I wrote a piece for Nieman Reports, Harvard’s journalism magazine, about the ethics of working with leaked and stolen documents. There are tough questions to be asked about running such stories – the article was prompted by the Sony hack, which unearthed public-interest gems such as how an executive had bought pubic hair dye on Amazon – but the Panama Papers are the most open-and-shut-case I can remember.

Unlike the disclosures of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, there is no question here of national security being breached; unlike the Sony hack, there is no celebrity tittle-tattle being passed off as news. The only questions that should have troubled reporters are:
a) “Are these documents real?” and b) “Can I protect the source?” Whoever leaked the 2.4 terabytes of data is very brave; he or she is now in the sights of every corrupt politician, state-sanctioned gangster and kleptocrat between here and the Río Chagres.

 

Shameless rich

Reading the Papers gave me a huge rush of anger and I was glad to see left and right united in condemnation. But we have to be realistic about the likely impact: it is notoriously hard to embarrass the super-rich and they will now have ample confirmation that “everyone is at it”. So far it's been terribly hard to extract an answer from David Cameron over his father’s Blairmore fund, established when David was 16. Were his Eton fees paid with money that had previously taken a lovely sunny holiday offshore? Was his Bullingdon Club uniform bought with wealth grown using a system his own Chancellor has called “morally repugnant”?

The most telling line came in the rebuttal from the firm involved, Mossack Fonseca, which claimed that in 40 years of operation it had never been charged with criminal wrongdoing. No, I imagine not.

 

A tale of two Helens

So she did it. OK, you might not care about The Archers, but unless you’ve stuffed your ears with cheese, by now you should know that Helen Titchener stabbed her husband, Rob, after months of escalating emotional abuse. May I toot the horn of our deputy web editor, Anoosh Chakelian, who spotted the potential impact of this plotline in February and published a harrowing but essential piece by the writer Helen Walmsley-Johnson, who had suffered a similar pattern of abuse? As a result of the NS publishing her story, a crowdfunding appeal was set up and over £100,000 has been raised for the charity Refuge, to help women like both Helens to leave their partner.

On that note, the Archers story might have ended with Helen knifing Rob – but in the real world, men are four times more likely to kill their partner than the other way round.

 

Nail-varnished truth

I’ve always loved Eddie Izzard – that routine about “the pen of my aunt” is unparalleled in modern comedy – but I’m baffled why he now claims to have come out “as transgender 30 years ago”. I may have fallen victim to false memory syndrome, but my recollection is that he always called himself a transvestite, though he used to explain that the clothes he wore weren’t “women’s clothes”; they were “his clothes”. (My take on the subject? I’m with RuPaul: “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag.”)

Izzard – who has long harboured ambitions of becoming an elected Labour politician – is perfectly entitled to define himself however he wishes and to update that definition based on the latest vocabulary and cultural moment. Yet I can’t help feeling that there is something regressive about this biographical rewrite. Izzard used to present himself as someone who was biologically male but enjoyed wearing clothes historically associated with women. Now he talks about getting his nails done because: “I’ve got boy genetics and girl genetics.” I can’t wait to hear which particular DNA sequence is associated with liking nail polish and, moreover, why I don’t have it.

 

More than old-fashioned

Izzard was responding, in part, to remarks made by the Booker Prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan, who used a lecture at the Royal Institution to lament the modern idea of an “identity supermarket”, in which individuals choose their self like a “consumer desirable”. (He later added: “Call me old-fashioned but I tend to think of people with penises as men.” Having spent some time on Twitter and Tumblr, I can confidently say that a lot of people will call him something worse than that.)

The question of whether your identity is determined only by you or is imposed by society might sound like one of those things that keep first-year undergraduates up in a marijuana haze until 3am, but it has pretty big implications for policies ranging from the Race Relations Act to measures that concern single-sex spaces such as prisons, as well as the funding that backs them. We mustn’t dodge it.

 

Inside and out

I’ve been chewing the question over since I watched the varying responses from progressives to Rachel Dolezal (a white woman who got a perm and a tan and passed as African American, saying that she “felt” black) and Caitlyn Jenner, the former patriarch of the Kardashian clan, revealed as a woman on the cover of Vanity Fair.

Most of the op-eds at the time blithely asserted that race and gender – both social constructs with a biological basis – were, like, totally different, without ever deigning to explain why. Since then, the best explanation I’ve found comes from the sex researcher James Cantor: “Identity is not an ‘inner sense’. It’s a statement of the social role you want others to treat you as.”

I like this, because it makes the (important) case that trans men and women should be accepted in their chosen gender, without invoking quasi-religious ideas of a soul or the pseudoscience of “girl genetics” making you like dresses. Eddie, take note. l

Peter Wilby returns next week

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war

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