Category Archives: Culture

The graveyard of irony, pt. 94

I must admit a lingering fondness for Radio 5 Live’s saturday morning panel show, Fighting Talk. I’ve gotten out of the habit of listening the last six months or so, admittedly, but it’s perfect for an inconsistent prawn sandwich sort of football fan like me, normally pretty amusing in a low level way and littered with comedy sound effects.

Now it’s in trouble…again. For people who have better things to do on a saturday morning, the show puts four sports journalists, comedians or whatever against each other in best-pundit-wins battle, with points awarded on an avowedly arbitrary basis by jocular chain-smoking Ulsterman Colin Murray. At the end of the show, the two contestants out in front compete to ‘defend the indefensible’ – mount a case for an utterly inappropriate proposition in 20 seconds or less. Wikipedia’s random examples, which are as good as any, are: “I’d gladly drink a pint of Maradona’s liposuction fat for Comic Relief”; “Cricket has been cheapened now common people and ladies have jumped on the bandwagon” and “I believe the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race should take place in Iranian territorial waters”.

On Monday, Bob Mills was asked to argue that he would be able to cure Clare Balding’s lesbianism. He may have made a good case, or not; it might have been funny, or not. Some of us will never know, because as soon as the shriek-o-sphere had its inevitable collective hernia, the BBC panicked and edited the offending bit out of the podcast. You can still hear Colin Murray disclaiming the segment thus:

We don’t mean what we’re saying. The point is to defend the indefensible. I’m going to get it tattooed across my forehead, because every week, someone complains.

It really is very, very simple, isn’t it? It’s a concept so simple that even Colin Murray, a man who apparently thinks a forehead tattoo will get a point across on radio, can understand it.

Julie Bindel can’t.

“If I were to count the number of times I have been told by a man that all I need is “a good seeing to” to turn me straight I would be dizzy,” she complains. “If anyone is in any doubt that the discussion of Balding was rooted in sexism, remember that it was also suggested on the programme that she should be made to present racing coverage topless, and Mills joked that Balding was a “horse woman” who “appreciates power between her thighs”. Please!”

In fact, the exact reverse is the case; the routine is based exactly on modern right-on liberal mores. The whole point of that little rhetorical quarantine – indefensible – is to produce, if you’ll forgive me, a ‘safe space’ where the unreconstructed maleness of sports fandom can deprecate itself; the whole thing is dripping with irony. Bindelite feminism wouldn’t know irony if it offered to give her a good seeing to. It doesn’t reinforce sexism any more than it challenges sexism – it takes sexism out of the garage, kicks it around the park for 20 seconds and puts it back. No harm, or good, is done. Neither is the point of a saturday morning sports panel show, surely.

I note that she doesn’t bother to quote the ‘defence’ of the notion that Balding should present the racing sans brassiere…it would be a tougher sell, after all, seeing as the defendant was Martin Kelner, erstwhile Guardian colleague and resolutely right-on beta-male, who walked the liberal line with admirable precision.

In any case, if the Clare Balding jokes are sexist, then the aforementioned proposition about oiks taking over cricket is presumably offensive to about 99% of the show’s audience. It’s amazing that nobody complained! But then, nobody would; just as none of the substantial Liverpool crowd raised more than a good-humoured middle finger to the scouse-baiting jokes on the same broadcast. Only people who are, in effect, paid to take offence at meaningless things can be bothered.

Breasts and boosterism

More fun from the feminist-o-sphere, which has emerged briefly from the disturbing recesses of rape culture to discuss a matter of even greater importance – Angelina Jolie’s tits.

Jolie, as readers of either insert-scandal-sheet-of-choice or the Guardian cannot fail to have noticed, has gone public after having a preventative double mastectomy, when it turned out she carried a gene which gives her a frankly terrifying chance of contracting breast cancer. The decision to have the surgery is hardly more than ‘human interest’ grade news; a bit of a no-brainer for anyone in the same situation who values, you know, continuing to be alive and stuff. No, it was the decision to go public, for the purposes of (what else?) ‘raising awareness’, that caused everyone able to stifle a yawn to plunge into boosterism about the run of the mill actress’s ‘courage’.

Almost everyone, that is. There’s always something a little fishy about sleb advocacy, which is often as narrow and blundering as it is well-meaning; and sometimes, when an individual utterly misses the point from a position of invulnerable saintliness, then somebody else will see their temper snap. Enter Ruth Fowler, writing for CounterPunch.

What exactly has she done that deserves praise? She wrote about an invasive, often brutal medically (un?)necessary procedure which 56% of women with breast cancer in the US choose to undergo. Hands up everyone in the US who hasn’t heard of breast cancer and mastectomy! Anyone? Umm, anyone….?

OK. So now, thanks to Jolie, we’re MORE aware. And guess what? There are really, really expensive tests you can get which tell you beforehand how likely you are to get cancer and die! Hands up who knew about that one? Oh, quite a few of you? Mainly the ones who can afford it, am I right? The ones who can’t afford it – well what good is knowing that there’s a test out there only privileged rich people can get?

Ouch. Fowler’s piece is guilty of the distasteful habit of privilege-baiting (although Angelina Jolie is a better fit for privilege than many), and on the whole probably a little bit more obnoxious than it needs to be (yes, yes, pot kettle black); but the core message is absolutely on the money, or rather lack of money. The problem is not that people are ‘unaware’ of breast cancer, or common treatments for cancer (which traditionally involve cutting the affected bit off), but that (in the US, at least – and give Jeremy Hunt a couple more months…) there is no public healthcare; that making a big deal about what is possibly not the right solution for all women in a similar situation will lead to unnecessary surgeries and treatment (a lot of women end up corralled into unnecessary breast surgery).

Unfortunately, Fowler dared to break the sacred circle of sentimental boosterism. In particular, her piece has received a reply from Sharon Smith in the US version of Socialist Worker. And if you thought Fowler was obnoxious…oh boy! One of my pet peeves with feminism (pretty much all sub-schools suffer from this particular syndrome) is that it tends to interpret all critical commentary as ‘patronising to women’, which is of course itself patronising to women, who are perfectly well capable of deciding their own allegiances without some professional ideological caste to speak for them. So I will say no more than that, if I were Ruth Fowler, I would find Smith’s article patronising to the point of inciting homicidal rage. In any case, it is diversionary, schoolmarmish and intellectually moribund.

Smith’s first complaint is that the CounterPunch strapline – “Of Privilege, Health Care and Tits” – is sexist, because it contains the word ‘tits’. Fowler is oh so graciously absolved of guilt on this particular point:

Fowler’s article never actually mentions the word “tits.” But like smirking adolescents, the editors insert it … in their contemptuous title.

It is a little disturbing that the very idea that a woman would use the word “tits” is considered so exceptionally unsisterly that it is safer to assume that some sniggering oaf on the editorial team put it in for a laugh. Really? How divorced from actual womankind are some of these people? And while Fowler’s article does, indeed, not use the word ‘tits’, it is sarcastic and venomous in tone, and far more aggressive than the strapline – be it hers or the ghost of Alexander Cockburn’s.

“Using boob jokes to introduce an article about undergoing a double mastectomy to prevent a potentially deadly disease constitutes a descent from sexism to misogyny,” hectors Smith; but the boot is on the other foot. Calling boob jokes ipso facto sexist, and off colour jokes about fatal diseases ipso facto worse, is merely devaluing the words sexist and misogynist – especially as the ‘boob joke’ in question appears to be, er, the use of the word “tits”. If that alone is enough to prompt a giggle from comrade Smith – before the humourlessness bulkheads slam shut, at any rate – then that is her problem, not those of us who are no longer school age. (I note in passing that “boob” occurs frequently in Smith’s article, sometimes in a pseudo-humorous context, from which I deduce that it is not a sexist word for a mammary gland, unlike the T-bomb. Perhaps there is a helpful chart us mere mortals could consult?)

As far as Fowler goes, there is a lot of diversionary huffing and puffing:

Fowler ridicules Jolie for “your elaborately reconstructed chest and your incredible bravery in submitting to top-end, essential preventive treatments in order to avoid a painful and abhorrent death,” as if Jolie endured multiple surgeries over a period of months as a colossal act of narcissism.

Had Smith actually bothered to read the article – rather than stared at it just long enough to find a couple of ‘scandalous’ quotes to rip out of context – then she might have noticed that Fowler’s whole point was not that having surgery was narcissistic, but that making an empty and grandstanding gesture out of it was. As it happens, I would disagree (far be it from me to impugn the motives of Lara Croft!), but there is a real point here, which Smith misses: in making a public stand on her mastectomies, Jolie makes her mastectomies public property. She wants them to ‘mean something’, but that something is fatuous. Fowler objects: she says the main issue is lack of access to healthcare, and she is not prepared to let the saintly aura of Jolie’s gesture get in the way of making the point. All to the good.

Smith is caught in no man’s land – on the one hand, this supposed r-r-revolutionary socialist believes, of course, in equal access to healthcare, free at the point of use. On the other, her hopeless entanglement in bureaucratic-sentimentalist moral reflexes means she has to advocate it via defending a vacuous philanthropic gesture on the part of a grandstanding sleb. “It should not be difficult to understand why millions of women who, facing an epidemic of breast cancer, breathed a sigh of relief on May 14 upon reading Jolie’s honest and eloquent account of removing her breasts to save her life,” runs by far the funniest line in the whole piece. Which millions of women would these be, who are relieved to hear a distressing story about pre-emptive cancer surgery? Presumably they are the same ones who find the word “tits” mortally offensive.

There is a bigger problem here than what we make of Angeline Jolie’s tits: we have on one side a liberal writer for a left-liberal website, and on the other, Ruth Fowler for CounterPunch. Just kidding! On the other, a Marxist writer for a Marxist paper. Yet it is clear which of the two is more credulous, more restricted to Guardianista ideology (the Graun is on the sharp end of another of Fowler’s put-downs), more trapped by the fear of offending anyone or slaying a sacred cow – and that is the Marxist. It’s a sorry state of affairs. Why this particular sort of Marxist ends up being that particular sort of degraded liberal is a question that will have to wait for another day.