Under the Shadow of Rhodes
Marina Warner mentions the ‘giant monuments from the Soviet dictatorship’ retired to ‘Memento Park’ in Budapest (Letters, 21 April). A few years ago the mayor of Porto Empedocle, the Sicilian town where Pirandello was born, was under pressure to put up a monument honouring the great playwright. But there was no money. During a trip to a ‘twinned’ town somewhere in Ukraine, the mayor noticed that many statues had been discarded on the ground; they represented a man with a bald head and slanted eyes, peculiarly similar to Pirandello’s. So he asked whether he could buy one. ‘As many as you please,’ was the answer: there was nothing to pay. The mayor couldn’t believe his luck. Thus, after a few adjustments here and there, Lenin’s stone face became Pirandello’s. And so far as I know there he now stands, on the main square of a town which not long ago voted 92 per cent for Berlusconi.
‘I am pretty sure that, were I transsexual, I wouldn’t want [Germaine] Greer on any platform of mine,’ Jacqueline Rose writes (LRB, 5 May). But she isn’t transsexual and public platforms don’t belong to her, or to transsexuals or to anyone else: they belong to the collective we – the public. Public platforms aren’t places for chats between pals. They exist in a forum where we, the public, get to hear people, be in their presence, listen, learn, call them to account; a forum where we get to join in public conversation, where we do politics.
Rose understands that of course, and she states her position: ‘I tend to be opposed to no-platforming.’ But she sets Greer up as the demonic person who goes too far, who breaches Rose’s own tendency and warrants banishment. Greer is an easy target. Her opinions on transgender issues are described as ‘hateful’. ‘Hate’ and ‘phobia’ are part of the hyperbolic lexicon of trans debates. Another pioneering feminist activist, Julie Bindel, has been declared ‘vile’ and no-platformed in resolutions affirming trans rights passed by conferences of the National Union of Students. Bindel is cheeky, irreverent and occasionally offensive. She is also an adroit campaigner for justice for the most marginalised and maligned women. But the NUS does not allow students to hear her in person, or to be heard by her.
That is why the no-platforming of feminists in the name of trans sensibilities is so toxic: it not only silences some feminist voices and purges legitimate feminist discourse from some public platforms, it excludes students themselves from active participation, from challenging and changing their own and other people’s minds. I once invited an NUS women’s officer to debate that ban in public. No, she said. So, a feminist is consigned to the NUS proscribed list, along with neo-fascists.
More recently I suggested that one of Britain’s leading gay journals – I won’t name and shame – host a round-table. No, they said. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Are you frightened?’ Yes, they said. I suggested the same thing to an Oxbridge political journal. No, they didn’t think they would or could, they said, because university must be a safe space, like home. As if every home is safe! As if debate is dangerous.
I should declare an interest: Jacqueline and I are old friends, we have enjoyed agreeing and disagreeing with each other for years. But I find myself foxed: why in 15,000 words is Greer’s purported hatefulness flagged, but not the bullying that flays feminism? The sexual revolution wrought by feminist and gay activism has, of course, changed the political landscape in which trans lives can be lived. It co-exists with the commodification of gender archetypes and the reinstatement of seemingly polarised and parodic masculinities and femininities. All of this can be aired in feminist forums and, say, Mumsnet, but not in trans/feminist discourse in the NUS.
As I write, up pops the following notification from ‘youngradfems’:
Unfortunately we’ve had to take down the post ‘how I became a cis-privileged shitlord’ because the author was scared of being outed as a disgusting terf [trans-exclusionary radical feminist] bitch if her fellow students found out about her radical feminist views. Yet another example of radical feminist young women being bullied into silence.
The NUS impulse to no-platform feminists who problematise transsexualism or prostitution, who attract the abusive designation ‘transphobic’ and ‘whorephobic’ (they often go together), has migrated to other venues and organisations.
In February 2015 Deborah Cameron and I gathered more than 130 signatures to a letter published in the Observer opposing no-platforming and the stifling of debate. Rose was not one of them. It was provoked by the Bindel ban, new purges, and threats to feminist students and to the comedian Kate Smurthwaite at Goldsmiths (she has expressed support for the ‘Nordic model’ – criminalising the purchase of sex); it also referred to the Germaine Greer kerfuffle, and the ugly harassment of the philosophy lecturer Rupert Read. He’d written a philosophical essay on transgender and feminist issues in 2013 but two years later he was subjected to a public thrashing. People threatened to picket his election appearances as a Green Party candidate. ‘There are few things more conservative,’ Sarah Brown, a transgender former LibDem councillor in Cambridge, wrote about Read, ‘than the view that trans people are dirty perverts who shouldn’t be indulged in our supposed delusion, that sex workers are wanton harlots who are certainly to be discouraged, and that masturbation is some kind of social ill that needs eradicating.’
Read, of course, held no such opinions. But that didn’t matter. Following relentless attacks on social media, including death threats, and with the Green Party itself thoroughly spooked, Read had to ‘retract’ things that he had never said in the first place. Brown, a leading trans activist, had form, a talent for spite. In a public riposte to a fellow Cambridge councillor, she wrote: ‘I invite you to suck my formaldehyde pickled balls.’ This field is bloodied with ‘hatefulness’.
Our ‘no to no-platforming’ Observer letter said: ‘You do not have to agree with the views that are being silenced to find these tactics illiberal and undemocratic. Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying. We call on universities and other organisations to stand up to attempts at intimidation and affirm their support for the basic principles of democratic political exchange.’ The signatories included scholars and activists, transsexuals, people for and against prostitution united by commitment to democratic debate and opposition to no-platforming.
One of the signatories was Mary Beard. She – like Deborah and I – didn’t know what all the signatories thought about the contested issues, but the day after the letter appeared she wrote on her blog that they included ‘many I am proud to be next to: Nimko Ali, Peter Tatchell, Lisa Appignanesi, Melissa Benn, Caroline Criado-Perez, Catherine Hall, Gia Milinovich, Sophie Scott, Francesca Stavrakopoulou, and loads more. Hardly the forces of gender darkness, unless you are a real reactionary.’ Yet, she continued,
since the letter was posted on the Guardian website … I have been bombard[ed] by tweets … I got sixty tweets in the space of about an hour from one person alone … Last night I went to bed wanting to weep … It wasn’t the force of any remark, it was the relentless pummelling of attack on the basis of extraordinary loaded, sometimes quite wrong, readings of the letter … You can see why a lot of women (and there is a gender issue here) might choose not to put their heads above the parapet.
Peter Tatchell was also bombarded – all the more galling for him because he is a strong advocate of trans people and sex workers. Many responses, he wrote, ‘were hateful and abusive: homo, foreigner, misogynist, paedophile, nutter and so on. Others were threatening: “I would like to tweet about your murder you f*cking parasite.”’ The pioneering trans campaigner Stephen Whittle blogged: ‘I was astonished to discover that those social justice campaigners, Peter Tatchell and Mary Beard, among others, had become the latest attack of the twittering trans-sirens.’ Was this ‘vicious streak’, he wondered, the ‘death of the inclusive, tolerant trans community’? The answer seems to be yes.
Sara Ahmed, professor in race and cultural studies at Goldsmiths, is adamant: ‘There cannot be a dialogue when some at the table are in effect or intent arguing for the elimination of others at the table.’ But speaking is not the same as pointing a gun, as Whittle reminds us. Ahmed organised a group response to our Observer letter, published in the paper a week later: ‘We do not agree that freedom of speech is freedom to speak unaccountably.’ But NUS no-platforming does, precisely, prevent speaking accountably: it not only proscribes speech but students’ active participation – in hearing and, crucially, being heard.
Feminism is nothing if not a politics that problematises gender and the construction of masculinities and femininities; it is bound to get into ‘gender trouble’. Who knows whether ‘What is a woman?’ is a feminist question or a patriarchal conundrum? Transsexuals, including Kate Bornstein and Miranda Yardley, for example, have put these questions on the trans agenda.
If feminism can’t make gender trouble then it can’t talk about anything, indeed it is silenced by Ahmed’s authoritarian notion of ‘dialogue’: language loses meaning and politics is shot.
Beverley, East Riding
Jacqueline Rose’s sympathetic discussion of trans people’s experiences could have done more to acknowledge the genuine concern that some feminists have about aspects of the trans agenda and its implications for women’s rights. Rose rightly describes as hateful the language used by Germaine Greer about trans people. However, many feminists, myself included, are worried by the potential in some coverage of trans people’s stories (such as that of Caitlyn Jenner) for reviving notions of intrinsic masculine and feminine qualities, with their implication that gender is hard-wired in the brain. This version of identity politics feels like a step backwards towards biological determinism and away from feminist debates over many years aimed at transcending the category of gender entirely. A second omission relates to trans children, where there is an important debate to be had about choice and the appropriate age of consent for any potentially irreversible intervention. Addressing these points does not have to take the form of an attack on individual trans people, many of whom, as Rose points out, are as critical of gender as feminists are. Perhaps one way of avoiding the creation of a new trans-TERF binary is to depersonalise the debate (temporarily underplaying ‘the personal is political’) and focus instead on the political agendas served by discrimination against both women and trans people.
What have the railways ever done for us?
James Meek describes Britain’s railways as a ‘rotten, still partly privatised system’ which ‘acts as a device to siphon off the resources of state and passengers’ (LRB, 5 May). His proposed solution is ‘restoration of public ownership and reunification … under a single hand’. I am sure that what I say will not dent his indignation, but as the former head of the Association of Train Operating Companies, I would remind him that Britain’s railways have the best safety record of any in Europe, have handled more passenger growth than any other, and require less government subsidy as a proportion of their total cost (29 per cent) than most others.
There is no right way to organise a railway. Public ownership and unification under a single hand doesn’t address the issue. The railway is too big, too much of a monopoly, and too complicated, with too many difficult decisions to make every day. You have to break it down somehow, and however you do that is a compromise. Separation of track and train is a perfectly sensible arrangement. It has huge advantages – for most of the time, it allows managers to focus on a coherent set of tasks – and some disadvantages, mainly that track managers making decisions about large sums of money do so without the knowledge of passengers they would have if they also ran the trains. Collaboration goes some way to remedy this, but not as far as one would like. The separation of track and train does not prevent proper government oversight: all the big decisions are made by government or in close consultation with it.
The involvement of foreign or private companies is not a scam. You must try to get competition into the system. This is difficult for the track but possible for train operation. It isn’t for their private capital that we have the state rail companies of Germany, France or the Netherlands, or Richard Branson, it is for their participation in the competition for train operating franchises. Yes, the profit they make takes money out of the system, but we gain more from the competitive pressure they introduce than we lose in profit.
James Meek asks: ‘what might nationalisation of the railways mean in the 21st century?’ I can give you a fairly concrete idea: Deutsche Bahn is Germany’s publicly owned railway, operating on a network of 41,000 km of track and employing more than a quarter of a million people. In 2013 it generated €1.4 billion in revenue. Its Intercity-Express connects major German cities, operating at speeds of up to 300 km an hour. Deutsche Bahn has done well enough to be able to acquire Britain’s largest freight operator, now called DB Cargo UK.
In his account of Milovan Djilas’s career as a communist revolutionary, a high-ranking communist official and then a dissident, Thomas Meaney doesn’t mention the interesting detail that at the session of the Yugoslav party’s Central Committee in 1954 during which his ‘case’ was the only item on the agenda, Djilas performed the required self-criticism and agreed with the party’s repudiation of his views (LRB, 19 May). This didn’t prevent his expulsion from the party but perhaps saved him from imprisonment or worse (he was sentenced to prison only later for publishing his critical views abroad). Once out of prison and an internationally acclaimed dissident, he avoided making any criticism of his life and work as a high-ranking official, and refused to comment on his role in the imprisonment and execution of tens of thousands of alleged wartime collaborators, ‘class enemies’ and, later, suspected Stalinists.
Meaney thinks that Stalin expelled the Yugoslav party from the Cominform in 1948 because, among other things, the Yugoslav communists introduced workers’ self-management (which the Soviets, embarrassingly, had not done). But the first self-managing committees were introduced in a few factories in Yugoslavia only in 1950, two years after the expulsion.
Macquarie University, New South Wales
When Inigo Thomas recognised the importance of Suffolk to the defence of the UK he could have mentioned that in this context much lay below the surface – literally (LRB, 5 May). The feature I am most familiar with is the former RAF Bawdsey on the north bank of the Deben Estuary, where, during the Cold War, the operation of and training for the UK Air Defence System were conducted from an underground bunker. Indeed, some of the American Phantoms and British Vulcans, as well as Lightnings and Phantoms, would have been controlled from the bunker by me and my colleagues in the Fighter Control Branch of the RAF. However, those operations were deliberately inconspicuous, an advantage that was hard to confer on the huge wooden towers that survived until 1990 and originally supported the aerials of the very first operational ‘Chain Home’ radars that were developed at Bawdsey by Robert Watson-Watt and a large team of scientists and engineers shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Another edifice that remains magnificently obvious is the Manor House, designed by William Eade in the 1880s, where much of the development of radar took place. On a sunny day, the red brickwork of the building glows against the surrounding trees and shrubbery. When the development engineers moved out, the house became the officers’ mess and when in 1967 I reported there for training as a 19-year-old newly minted pilot officer, I was awestruck that it was to be my home. The ballroom, complete with minstrels’ gallery, the dining room and ante-room were all oak panelled and the ‘ladies room’ (a now defunct tradition in officers’ messes, I believe) boasted leather panels with gilt-inlaid patterning on the walls. Stone staircases swept down from the terraces outside the bar to the cricket pitch and beyond to the landing stage for Charlie Brinkley’s ferry across the Deben giving access to Felixstowe. When, once a month, all the officers dined together in the mess, those making their way from married quarters across the water could be seen in their gold-braided finery, often accompanied by their ladies in billowing evening gowns, huddled in the tiny boat and looking questioningly at Charlie as he steered at least 45 degrees away from the landing stage in order to counter the ripping current.
Read everything but this
Wow. The LRB, 5 May. What a scorcher! I’m thinking of writing to the Guinness Book of Records. Every page was readable. Except the letters page, of course.