How To Use 'Feminism' As A Cheap, Cynical Political Tool
In the 1998 collection of his interviews with David Barsamian, ‘The Common Good’, linguist and political scholar Noam Chomsky describes succinctly the way in which ostensibly ‘progressive’ news publications help to maintain the status quo in modern capitalist societies:
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.
In the UK, there is perhaps no starker example of this smoke and mirrors act than The Guardian. The Guardian is a newspaper that styles itself as a beacon of the progressive British left. And indeed it does put out many pieces that fall—at least on the face of it—on the liberal side of issues like gender, sexuality, and the environment. Humming underneath that shiny progressive bonnet however is something quite different, and when it comes to the crunch The Guardian always shows its true colours, using its platform to continuously push solidly status quo ideas like neoliberalism and military intervention. It makes sense: The Guardian is a capitalist institution that relies on ad revenue for funding. It is overwhelmingly staffed with white, privileged journalists who have benefited greatly from the system as it is. Why would it want to actually challenge the status quo?
Thanks to the Labour party having a genuinely socialist leader and direction for the first time in decades, we are living in a particularly illuminating time for The Guardian’s duplicity. Jeremy Corbyn’s historic and quite miraculous win in the leadership election of 2015—followed by his survival of several internal right-wing coup attempts and the swelling of the party’s membership to over half a million—ensured that here, suddenly, unbelievably, in the heart of Western capitalism and imperialism, there was hope of a genuine alternative. Here was a man who had spent his entire career as a politician championing fairness and equality, and challenging the destructive neoliberal agenda, and who all of a sudden was at the driver’s seat of one of the country’s two main political parties.
You would think that such a historic opportunity for the left would have been welcomed by The Guardian. Yet rather than champion him the paper expended a considerable amount of energy doing the exact opposite, continuously elevating his right-wing rivals, and denigrating and misrepresenting Corbyn himself. The effort was exhaustive and exhausting. I wrote about The Guardian’s unofficial anti-Corbyn campaign back in 2016. Here is the piece in case you want a quick refresher, but a key point from it is a quote from a London School of Economics study about the British media’s treatment of Corbyn:
Our analysis shows that Corbyn was thoroughly delegitimised as a political actor from the moment he became a prominent candidate and even more so after he was elected as party leader, with a strong mandate. This process of delegitimisation occurred in several ways: 1) through lack of or distortion of voice; 2) through ridicule, scorn and personal attacks; and 3) through association, mainly with terrorism. All this raises, in our view, a number of pressing ethical questions regarding the role of the media in a democracy. Certainly, democracies need their media to challenge power and offer robust debate, but when this transgresses into an antagonism that undermines legitimate political voices that dare to contest the current status quo, then it is not democracy that is served.
As Alex Nunns put it in his book ‘The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power’ when talking of Corbyn’s journey to being Labour leader:
In the following weeks, as public excitement began to build behind Corbyn, as the applause at hustings got louder, as the local party endorsements notched up, and as unofficial surveys pointed to significant support, the Guardian’s response, save for the occasional mention, was a virtual blackout. In a later review of his paper’s coverage, the Guardian’s readers’ editor, Chris Elliott, admitted that “in the early days of Corbyn’s charge, the readers rightly got a sniff that on occasions we weren’t taking him seriously enough.”
The newspaper’s interest picked up after revelations in mid-July that Corbyn was ahead in private polling. And then, when the YouGov poll landed, the coverage exploded - helped by an accelerant in the form of Tony Blair’s first clumsy intervention into the contest. A selection of the headlines from the Guardian website’s front page on 22 and 23 July gives a sense of the almost hysterical tone that took hold: “Blair urges Labour not to wrap itself in a Jeremy Corbyn comfort blanket”; “Think before you vote for Jeremy Corbyn”; “Labour can come back from the brink, but it seems to lack the will to do so”; “Blair: I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform.” On these two panic-stricken days alone, the Guardian website carried opinion pieces hostile to Corbyn from Anne Perkins, Suzanne Moore, Polly Toynbee, Tim Bale, Martin Kettle, Michael White, Anne Perkins (again), and Anne Perkins (yet again). There was not a single pro-Corbyn column.
In one of her three efforts, Anne Perkins dispensed with subtlety and simply pleaded:
‘Please, new associate members who will shape the party for the next five years, maybe forever: do a little research. Think what kind of country you want for you and your children and, even more importantly, think how you might get there. Now think, is Jeremy Corbyn in the middle of that picture? I don’t think so.’
After his election there were a few brief mea culpas from The Guardian. Some light overtures to the fact that perhaps their privileged, centrist attitude was not in line with the millions of people desperate for change and elated at the sight of a socialist politician who actually represented that change. ‘Maybe we misjudged him’. ‘This historic election clearly shows that Corbyn has the people behind him.’ That kind of thing. But that graceful period was just a blip, and before long business as usual resumed, with pieces overtly and subtly disparaging Corbyn’s Labour, continuously questioning his leadership, and elevating those figures within the party that do the same.
These days you find The Guardian maintaining that direction. The news pieces are framed in a particular way. Right-wing Labour figures like Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, and Jess Philips are fawned over. And the opinion pieces come thick and fast, using whatever stick they can to beat the unacceptable sight that is a genuinely left-wing Labour party. We saw a great example of this lazy, cynical strategy this Monday, when regular, high profile Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore published this piece:
Its original title was ‘Why is it so hard for Labour to find a woman for its inner circle?’ It was changed after some backlash, which we’ll get to in a moment.
The piece used the Tory leadership debates as a jumping off point, rightly pointing out the homogeneity of the sight:
On Sunday night, I may have watched some men in suits talking nonsense. I may have been in the pub. I may have fallen asleep because the Tory-leadership candidate who is actually going to win couldn’t be arsed to turn up. Such is power. Some of these guys aren’t recognisable to me. Such is politics.
And then, in truly spectacular style, it drove off a cliff in a fit of ideological point scoring:
For the past few years, in every chat I have had with a senior Labour person, they have acknowledged that the party needs a female leader. The Tories have done it twice. Maybe the Lib Dems will appoint Jo Swinson. But Labour has a shortage of women, not on its benches but in its inner circle. This inner circle includes the same people who struggle to deal effectively with sexual harassment cases and antisemitism, so it’s understandable they would find it challenging to track down a woman - any woman! - with the intellectual depth and mental agility of the present leader.
We keep being told politics is broken, and that we are entering the era of a multi-party system. Brexit represents the great divide, while the climate emergency overshadows everything. As always, there is something more important in the air for Labour than gender representation. Strong voices, from Stella Creasy to Jess Phillips, are not loyal enough to a leader who himself was never loyal. A suitable female pet has to be groomed or the revolution may stall.
Putting aside the fact that those two occasions that the Tory party has elected a female leader yielded racist, human rights-hating, country-destroying figures like Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, it is of course true that party politics on both sides of the spectrum has a long way to go in terms of gender (and race) representation. Yet the gulf between reality and rhetoric in Moore’s extremely bad faith screed is truly impressive. It’s difficult to change things over night, yet under Corbyn’s leadership Labour’s Shadow Cabinet has become 52% women, the highest proportion ever. Many of the party’s leading lights are female—often from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. Dawn Butler serves as Shadow Women & Equalities Secretary. Angela Rayner is Shadow Secretary of State for Education. Rebecca Long-Bailey is Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Emily Thornberry is Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Jennie Formby is General Secretary of the Labour Party—the second most powerful position within the party. These are not insignificant roles. Who knows what shadowy cabal Moore imagines functions as Labour’s actual ‘inner circle’. What’s more the party’s policies—from ending austerity to expanding social care to things like paid leave for victims of domestic abuse—are policies that, should Labour come into power, would directly and indirectly benefit women as a whole.
And then of course there is Diane Abbott. Serving as Shadow Home Secretary under Jeremy Corbyn, Abbott was the first black woman to be elected to British parliament back in the late eighties. A working class woman who went to Cambridge and who bravely endures the most intense, virulent, ceaseless campaigns of classist misogynoir from the British press and public, Abbott is one of the most influential members of the modern Labour party and a true hero of the left. She is also a staunch Corbyn ally. To Suzanne Moore, and The Guardian overall, that’s all that matters. For that she must be erased, her name and impact completely ignored. It would be great, of course, if the Labour party had a socialist woman at its head. Indeed it may well do in the near future, partly thanks to efforts by people like Jeremy Corbyn, who has consistently elevated and supported female colleagues. Moore attempts to do here what many ‘liberal’ commentators try: Use a genuine, vital cause like feminism as a tool with which to attack a threat to the status quo. It is cheap, offensive, and reflective of The Guardian’s privileged gatekeeping attitude as a whole.
As much of a scourge and toxic entity as Twitter is, it also allows such nonsense as Moore’s piece to not go unchallenged.