Tuesday, 21 December 2010

BREAKING: Melanie Phillips not impressed with the Left, feminism

The thing that always strikes me when I read the extended word-vomits that Melanie Phillips calls her newspaper columns, is that they do actually sort of make sense, as long as you buy into one or two comically absurd notions about her opponents.

First, a summary. Over the past couple of weeks, debate has raged on the left about Julian Assange and Wikileaks. It's been interesting to follow, and a lot of very sensible (and some stupid) things have been said. One major issue that has caused some arguing has been people's reactions to the rape charges levelled against Assange. The timing of the arrest so close to a major bout of embarrassment-causing by Wikileaks has caused some to be suspicious that the charges were not genuine, and this has not been helped by a torrent of misinformation about the nature of the charges, ranging from the bizarre "it was sex by surprise!" to the idea that a condom simply broke. As a result of this confusion, and in some cases no small element of political bias, some on the left were perhaps rather too quick to insist on Assange's innocence. In the worst cases, this has led to some tremendously ugly bashing of the women concerned, which has understandably caused some of us to feel rather uncomfortable. This Kate Harding post makes a pretty good fist of explaining why it's okay to support Wikileaks and still take the rape allegations seriously without resorting to slinging mud at the women making the claims. Above anything else, regardless of the facts of this case, it's important that women are not discouraged from reporting incidents of rape and sexual assault, and reactions like this (which have come from both the left and right - indeed the Mail itself was the source of much of the smearing of the women concerned), are not helpful in the bigger picture.

So, serious issues, big things at stake, topics worthy of grown-up debate and discussion, right? Enter Melanie Phillips [I apologise for any disturbing images that phrase may have given you]. Phillips is reacting to this with absolute glee. Arguments on the left of politics are not a sign of adult discourse, or a reflection of genuine disagreements about real issues. They're just funny. Funny, and a sign of wavering moral confusion. "...our most sanctimonious campaigners have managed to hoist themselves simultaneously on not just one, but multiple politically correct petards", she reports.

Phillips rampages through this tale with unconcealed joy. It involves Sweden! Liberals like Sweden! Isn't that terribly funny? What a hilarious mess! She gets to have a go at 'luvvies', and most joyously of all for her, the Guardian. At no stage in the piece does Phillips particularly concern herself with stating her own beliefs, either about Wikileaks, about Assange or the allegations. Pointing and mocking is fine enough.

What confuses Phillips the most though, and its a theme that courses through her writing, is nuance. Melanie Phillips isn't really about nuance. It's not something she does, or feels she needs to do. Like her fellow columnist Peter Hitchens, everything is simple. Things A and B are right and moral. Things X and Y are wrong and disgusting. Person 1 is dead wrong. Person 2 is dead right. Phillips never seems to be able to understand why other people cannot instantly uncover the rights and wrongs of a situation in the way she can. There are a couple of examples of the binary way she views the world in this piece, and she asserts the same central canard twice. The first is here:
For the whole world-view of the Left rests upon its iron-clad conviction that America is a global conspiracy of evil from which all bad things ultimately emanate.
...and repeated in more depth further on:
To understand why there is such an ear-splitting screeching of brakes from The Guardian, it is necessary to consider the mind-bending contradictions of what passes for thinking on the Left.

For it believes certain things as articles of faith which cannot be denied. One is that America is a force for bad in the world and so can never be anything other than guilty. Another is that all men are potential rapists, and so can never be anything other than guilty.
Now, that's an absurd caricature of liberal thinking. It's a fairly common view on the right that the left HATES America, but it's a bafflingly simplistic depiction of it. A lot of time is spent criticising the US, but that's a reflection of two things; 1) the power which the US has, and 2) its democratic nature. We spend a lot time shouting about the US because in many ways it's the biggest hope for worldwide positive change. The direction of US politics can be changed by political action, if we can demonstrate the will. We criticise the US harshly at times because we recognise that if we want any kind of global political change, the US is always going to be a key player, and can be influenced in a way that other nations can't. It's kind of the friend we like to criticise constructively because we know what its capable of achieving.

The other 'article of faith', that the left believes that all men can never not be guilty of rape, is a cartoonish simplification of a viewpoint which isn't held by a majority of feminists, let alone leftist liberals. But you get the feeling Melanie Phillips actually unwaveringly believes that this is the stark, Manichean way liberals think. She's projecting her own binary way of thinking onto her opponents, seeing them as a mere mirror image of herself and unable to ever accept that maybe things are just a little less neat than they appear.

Of course, what Phillips is utterly unable to provide are any quotes to support her assertions that we all passionately hate the US and all assume men are guilty. I've read a lot of blogs and articles from various sides of this debate, and I've yet to come across a single feminist who has stated that they assume Assange's guilt; the vast majority have been at pains to point out that, at this stage, we simply cannot know. It's simply about taking serious allegations seriously, and affording the alleged victims the chance to put their case before the courts without simply dismissing the charges out of hand because the timing looks dodgy or because Wikileaks is something we may support. For all the fighting and debate that's gone on, ultimately there's no contradiction to be found when it comes to reconciling the two issues; Wikileaks can be a good thing whether or not Assange personally is a good man. We can defend Wikileaks' right to disclose documents that can inform debate without needing to assume anything about the truth of the personal allegations made against him.