the freedom of the press

Many many years ago, I was news commissioning editor for a student newspaper.

I think it was quite a good student newspaper: the editorial team were all pretty good writers, and we spent most of our weekends rewriting the things people had contributed, to make sure the whole thing was of readable quality. The paper got a few scoops, a few awards, and one of our columnists even got a few death threats.

One night I sat behind some undergraduates on the student bus to Leamington, listening to them rave about how good one of my articles was. There was no photo next to the article, so they had no idea that it was me sitting right behind them; but it made me happy.

But in retrospect, the thing I am most proud of as a news editor was not something we published; it was something we didn’t publish. A name.

He was from Africa somewhere, I think. Or possibly South-East Asia.

We had all the details right there at the time: I remember thinking he had quite a distinctive name, although of course I don’t now remember what it was. He was an international student so we weren’t sure if he was going to be deported or tried in the UK, but we did know he was in big trouble. He had, it was alleged, downloaded a load of child pornography and then, forgetting that there was a campus intranet set up where everyone could access each others’ files, left them visible to every single other person on campus.

I’ve heard it argued that it is possible to exhibit a level of stupidity which borders on immorality; if this is true then he had been doubly immoral.

The story had everything that the reactionary press at the time went nuts for: a foreign immigrant (check) paedophile (check) student (check), coming over here and living in our very midst! The Daily Mail or the Express would have squealed with sensationalist joy over it. If only he’d been a single mother as well, it would have been the perfect story.

We had to publish it, of course – everyone was talking about it already and even though the whole thing felt uncomfortably like we were straying into Mail-lite territory, we would have been remiss as a newspaper if we had just ignored it. We ended up putting it on the front page, too, at the insistence of the Editor, who had the final say over these things. I seem to remember the write-up was something of a team effort, and unlike most front-page stories nobody particularly wanted their byline on it.

There was, however, one thing we didn’t have to publish: the actual identity of the young man who had been arrested.

We talked about it at very great length before going to press. Would it be better to publish all the details we could, including the foreign paedophile’s name? We checked the dubious expertise of the two Law undergraduates we called our ‘legal’ department, and they said there would be no legal problem with naming him. And people would want to know a name, it was argued. It would make the story a better story. The doctrine of the free press holds the principle that information must not be suppressed if people want to know it.

On the other hand, we thought – well, I thought – what actual good would it do? Who would it help? If the allegations were true, the kid was obviously a pervert, and people would want to know if there was a dangerous pervert roaming around campus. But the thing was, he hadn’t been officially convicted yet, and if he was convicted then he certainly wasn’t going to be around campus any more to be a danger to anyone. So naming him would hardly make things better.

And then, of course, there was the online edition. Our website was getting a lot of hits so we had reason to believe that anyone who googled his family name, anywhere in the world, would see our story. It would, inevitably, bring shame on his family in his home country. And we had no idea what other consequences.

We argued, and I made the case that while I agreed with the principle of a free press, when we weighed up the overall good to be gained against the overall harm to be done, then on this occasion the principle could go hang.

And so we voted on it.

The death of Lucy Meadows this week reduced me pretty much to a blubbering wreck. A blubbering, almost violently furious wreck.

And not just at Richard Littlejohn. Yes, he is a publically cunty figure and if I heard that he had befallen some terribly painful infection to his male genitals that he seems so keen to celebrate then I would laugh for many, many happy hours.

But Littlejohn wasn’t alone. Lucy Meadows had contacted the Press Complaints Commission to complain about photographers and journalists outside her house at New Year, and Littlejohn hadn’t been one of them. There were many other newspapers which printed stories about her, and hadn’t broken any laws in doing so, so the police could do nothing.

And the PCC couldn’t do anything either, of course: they were an entirely useless organisation that couldn’t protect the contents of a sealed can of catfood from a cat with its claws removed. Or at least, it couldn’t protect the people who needed protecting. The PCC was a self-regulatory body, with no statutory legal backing, that was run by the newspapers themselves.

That was what Leveson said, wasn’t it? That self-regulation hadn’t worked, and that the result was that the press have “wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people”?

But they haven’t done it because they want to; They have done it because they hold to the principle that if people want to know something – and they are prepared to buy your paper to find it out – then the press must have the freedom to tell them the truth, or at least whatever portion of it they want to hear, and it must be published.

At any cost.

John Stuart Mill, in his masterpiece On Liberty, gives a compelling defence of freedom of thought, speech and publication, with which I agree. He is (as am I) quite radically liberal on the freedom of genuine, open thought and discussion; far more liberal than most of the journalists and politicians who have grumbled, in their classically fallacious slippery-slope-argument way, about the ‘rubicon of press regulation being crossed’.

But even Mill does not argue for 100% untrammelled freedom of speech:

An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard. Acts of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the more important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavorable sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind. The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people. But if he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgment in things which concern himself, the same reasons which show that opinion should be free, prove also that he should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost.

Mill could be easily misinterpreted here to say that circulating hateful views through the press is permissible, while delivering them “orally to an excited mob” would not. But this is to miss Mill’s point.

What Mill is saying is that we should be permitted to say, print, sing, whatever you like, as long as it is not likely to cause harm to others. By all means defend your views, your interests, and the interests of those you care about – and of course, if this involves publishing angry articles about the policies of your government or state in order to hold them accountable, then we must be free to do this.

But do not think that a defence of free expression must be unlimited. It must be limited, and limited by a more basic principle – the principle that we must try not to bring about harmful consequences to others for no good reason.

The principle of a free press is absolutely worth holding in a liberal society, most of the time. But principles are only worth adhering to, to they extent that they bring about the best consequences in real situations.

A more basic principle is that no principle at all can be beyond scrutiny by its consequences. When you don’t know how many harmful consequences will be caused by adherence to that principle, but you have reason to believe it will do more to fuck up the lives of innocent people than it will do good, then it is the principle that has to be lost.

The principle of a free press says that the press must be able to publish whatever they like as long as it isn’t false, and many journalists believe that principle is so important that it comes before the consequences, or before any other principles which might be relevant.

Like, the principle that one should not doorstep people after personal tragedies. Or the principle that one should not bully people over their gender to the point of suicide.

Or the very basic principle of just not trying to fuck up innocent peoples’ lives when they aren’t really harming anyone. (And no, a teacher changing their gender does not, by itself, harm schoolchildren. Not like constant barrackings in the press can really harm someone).

It seems so obviously wrong to most of us to think that the principle of a free press might trump the principle of not fucking up innocent people’s lives. But a lot of journalists don’t mind fucking up people’s lives. Because a lot of journalists are bastards.

The difference between liberalism and anarchy is that liberalism – unlike anarchism – recognises that for most of us to be free, we do need to try and stop the bastards. Because bastards, as we know, can’t regulate themselves.

I won the vote, and while we published the story, we didn’t publish the name of the paedophile student.

And I was pleased – not for the kid himself, he would have deserved it. But his family didn’t deserve to have their name associated across the internet with something like that. Not when it would have done no good to anyone at all. And that student newspaper, which I loved, deserved better than to be reduced to seedy xenophobia-tinted tittle-tattle.

On that occasion, we regulated ourselves. Only one of us voted to name the guy. (It’s not a coincidence that he is the only one who went on to work as a professional news journalist.)

A few weeks later, a former writer for the student paper came back from his work experience at the Express to give us some ‘training’. He kept asking, why we didn’t name the paedophile? Why didn’t we name him?

I explained our reasoning.

But you could have named him, he kept saying. You should have named him!

I explained again.

And then he explained, that if we had competition from another paper, we would have named him. We would have had to. And that anyone who wants to be a successful journalist had to be prepared to do that kind of thing if they wanted to succeed.

At the time, he said this in a way which was so arrogant that I wanted to punch him right in his nasty troublemaking hack mouth. But afterwards I had to acknowledge that he was right.

I had wanted to be a journalist since I was thirteen. I loved working for that student newspaper more than I had loved almost anything I’d done before that. But after that day, I decided I didn’t want to be a journalist any more. And instead, I became a teacher.

I guess my point is that I’m glad that the government seem to have now recognised that the press need proper regulation, and hopefully the Royal Charter solution will get us some way there.

But there is also this: that there may be precious little to console the pure, bitter rage many of us are feeling that some fucking evil bastard journalists have managed to destroy a teacher this week. But for me, there is some small consolation to think there was at least one occasion where they created one.

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diary of a floating voter, part one

It has occurred to me recently that I must be the thing that all politicians are trying to find: a genuine, bona fide, floating voter.

I exist! And not only do I exist, but I’m politically engaged enough to actually go and vote. And I honestly don’t have a clue who to for in the 2015 general election – or even if I will vote at all.

So I’m going to keep track, on this blog, of which way I’m leaning.

By coincidence, I am also a 100% accurate bellwether voter: in the three general elections in which I have been eligible to vote so far, I have always voted for the winning MP in that constituency, and the party I have voted for has gone on to be in government. (I voted Labour in 2001 and 2005, and Liberal Democrat in 2010).

But I haven’t seen much evidence since 2010 that either of those parties deserve another vote from me. I would call myself, broadly speaking, a kind of socially-conscious modern liberal, so ideologically I suppose I ought to vote Lib Dem, and I think Nick Clegg has his heart in the right place; but I have been bitterly disappointed by the Liberal Democrats’ weakness in the coalition.

And while I grew up supporting Labour, I still feel betrayed by their record in government. It was partly over Iraq, civil liberties and their economic reliance on a banking and housing bubble that means only those of my generation with parental wealth will be able to afford a place to live in twenty or thirty years. But it’s also the way they governed: they were so obsessed with spin and appearance that they lost sight of doing the right thing.

I don’t think I’d ever vote Tory; and yet I sometimes think – although I say it quietly amongst my more lefty friends – that David Cameron is actually quite an intelligent and reasonable fellow. So while I would feel like a terrible traitor for doing so, I wouldn’t rule out a Conservative vote, if only I could be persuaded that Cameron can get his more reactionary backbenchers in line.

On the other hand, I’ve also been impressed with some of the Green Party’s achievements in Brighton, as well as some of their more socially liberal policies.

Basically, I’m anybody’s.

(Well, maybe not UKIP’s. But that doesn’t make much difference: I know plenty of old Tories who say they’d vote for UKIP now, but they’d never take the risk of voting for them in a general election if it meant Labour would get back in. So it’s my vote rather than theirs that the Conservatives need if they ever want to get another majority.)

To scale things up a notch, I am determined to vote in a marginal seat in 2015. It’s looking likely that I’ll be in a Labour vs. Lib-Dem marginal constituency; but if not then I intend to register at my mum’s house in Northampton North – a three-way marginal at the last election – to make sure that my vote really counts.

So I am basically the guy that any party needs to persuade if they want to get into government at the next general election. If they can persuade me, then they’ll probably be on the right lines.

With this in mind, I should say that what I’d really like is to be won back by Labour. The trouble is that they just can’t seem to stop doing things which come across to a floating voter like me as annoying party politicking. Ed Miliband always seems to be trying to make jokes and snide remarks at Prime Minister’s Questions rather than presenting a credible alternative. And I like jokes, but he’s no Beppe Grillo.

And then, this week’s Labour proposal of adopting the Lib Dems’ Mansion Tax policy would have been a welcome one, if it had been a genuine pledge to recognise the merits of that policy and include it in the 2015 manifesto. But it transparently wasn’t that, because there was no such pledge, just a clumsy attempt to make Clegg et al look like they had abandoned the policy (and therefore, we were supposed to assume, their principles). Since pretty much everyone who voted Lib Dem in 2010 is now reconciled to the fact that the Lib Dems have made compromises in order to do things like getting Gay Marriage passed and protecting the Human Rights Act, it just looked like a stunt. Why rub the Lib Dems’ noses in it that they’re locked into a coalition agreement that means they can’t get everything they want right now? They wouldn’t be able to get it from the opposition benches either.

Labour, and Ed Miliband in particular, don’t need to win Tory voters to win the next election. But they do need to win back the people who deserted them to vote for the Lib Dems in 2010. The trouble is, they don’t seem to understand why we deserted them – it was because they were too busy trying to keep power to think about coming up with policies that would improve people’s lives. They took their voters for granted.

They have a long way to go before they look like a government. And until that happens – I’m open to solicitations. Even from UKIP.

short people

I am five foot six-and-a-half. That’s how tall I am. There are five feet, and six-and-a-half inches of Charlie Duncan in between the floor and the top of my head. That is how much me there is.

This has generally never been a problem for me psychologically. I was a bit put out by it as a boy, being a little bit less tall than the other boys, but I’ve always made up for it with a certain amount of intellectual confidence. I also try to be as pleasant a person as I can be, and I think on the whole people like me. Additionally, I’m good at what I do, and this helps. So my height is rarely an issue. Plus, I mean – I’m not even that short.

So, I’d like to say that was all there was to it.

Unfortunately it isn’t. Tonight, for example, I was invited by a friend – a good friend, I think, one I like and admire a lot – to come over to her house for the evening. She had another friend over, too, who was attractive and nice and apparently single-ish, and I got the impression that my friend was trying to get us to meet each other, at least partly to see if we would get on well.

The problem was that my friend kept on and on, over and over again, about me being short. As if it was a problem.

I have no idea why she did this, because this friend is a kind and brilliant person who has always been perfectly lovely in every other sense, and I know that she will be absolutely mortified to read this and realise she’s upset me at all. And I don’t think she meant it maliciously or intended it to be harmful. But it was still kind of uncomfortable.

At one point we were even doing the ridiculous childhood thing of all standing up and measuring our respective heights against each other to see how tall we were, with the result being that I was, by about three-quarters of an inch, not quite as tall as this girl I had just been introduced to.

We all got on quite well otherwise; but later in the evening, when this girl went to the bathroom, my friend whispered to me, “You really fancy her, don’t you?”

“Well, I don’t know…she’s quite attractive I suppose…” I said.

“You’re too short for her,” my friend said. And my heart sank.

It just went on and on, to the extent that, however funny and charming and nice I might have been, if her friend had ever had that kind of interest in me at all (and of course I have no reason to believe that she would have), she would definitely have doubted by the end of the evening that she might be able to get together with me without anyone’s height being an issue. I mean, it’s unlikely of course, but it’s not impossible that if we’d all just sat round a table and no mention of it had been made, this girl and I would have got on fantastically well and by the time she even realised I was an inch shorter than her it wouldn’t have mattered.

I guess I’ll never know, because my friend made it matter.

I was even naïve enough to think I’d got away from it at the end of the evening, with an interesting story from doing stand-up comedy. This is a good place to leave it, I thought, announced that I was leaving, and hugged my friend goodbye. “You’re so short,” she said, again. Which led to another conversation about height in which my friend said that the ideal height for a man was about 6”0, which prompted the girl I had been introduced to add that she guessed perhaps the ideal height for a man for her was maybe even 6”2, and at that point I decided to just cut my losses and get out.

The thing is, there are some things which are caused by what we might call chance of birth. We can’t do anything at all about them, however much we might like to. As well as height, those things include things like skin colour, biological sex, age, genetic disabilities, what kind of person we find attractive, the country we were born in, or how rich or poor our parents are. We might like or hate these things about ourselves, and some people have argued they should somehow be compensated for, but the point is we can’t really do anything to change them. Some of them can be hidden: we can dye our hair or change our gender, etc. But height can’t be hidden. It’s just…there.

Of course, the things that one can’t control include who one fancies, and I have no objection at all to people having sexual preferences and prejudices. Personally I have sexual prejudices against men, children, and the elderly. This is uncontrollable.

But I find it horrible that people would consciously take the piss out of someone for any of these things. It’s just so unnecessary.

I used to have a rule as a stand-up comedian, and one that I think I kept to quite well mostly, that I would happily take the piss out of an audience member for stupid things they consciously say and do, but I would never take the piss out of an audience member for anything about themselves which they could do nothing about. It isn’t fair.

And by ‘take the piss’, of course, I don’t mean to make an occasional fond joke about it with that person in private, if it’s totally clear that it doesn’t hurt them. What I mean is, repeatedly drawing attention to some aspect of them in a way which actually harms or undermines them – or is reckless about whether it might harm them – either personally or socially.

One might say that height is fair game for this, that it’s not like ethnicity or gender because it’s not really a bad thing. But someone’s height does have a real effect on people’s lives. A 2004 study at the University of North Carolina found that someone my height is likely to earn an average of $5,525 less per annum than someone who is six feet tall (after controlling for age, gender and other factors). This is actually not far off the pay gap between men and women.

The study also found that there is a self-fulfilling cycle at play: when smaller people are given less respect socially, it leads to them both being less confident and being given less opportunities, because an unjustly negative view of smaller people is perpetuated and then reinforced. Which is why taking the piss causes harm.

Of course, I can’t complain too much because my salary is pretty good. And I would never claim to be more oppressed than people who didn’t have the same lovely upbringing and educational opportunities that I’ve had, or people who face actual violence or abuse, which generally I don’t. But height discrimination is still a real cultural problem that inexplicably just isn’t taken seriously enough in relation to the real effects it has on people’s lives.

Perhaps this is because discrimination against height, like age discrimination, is so endemically pervasive in our consciousness that it is rare for anyone to question it. Or perhaps it is because height never had any actual legal limitations on voting or civil rights attached to it, which other genetic or biological differences did. When feminists and racial equality activists successfully had those legal limitations lifted they realised they hadn’t gone far enough, and turned to addressing cultural inequalities – but this never happened for height discrimination, and the culturally engrained discrimination continues unchallenged.

Either way, I felt hurt by my friend.

And I’m glad that she didn’t do some other things which she could, using the same logic, have done: she could have spent the evening taking the piss out of her slightly-taller-than-average female friend for being ‘too tall’ (after all, I imagine she probably has as many social limitations on the people she can ‘acceptably’ go out with as I do, although whether she chooses to accept those social limitations I have no idea).

Or perhaps my friend could have invited a black or Jewish or disabled friend over, introduced them to the new attractive friend, and told them they were too black or Jewish or disabled for her. (All of which, I should point out, she would never ever do).

My friend didn’t intend any of it in a malicious way, she is still my friend and she is also, in so many other ways, an impeccable example of moral virtue. She was just a bit reckless about it. So I’m not going to be bitter about it.

But I want her to know – and part of the reason I have written this blog is so that, even if she doesn’t read it, I can get my thoughts straight to tell her the next time I see her – that it isn’t okay to take the piss out of people about their height. In fact, the reason why you don’t usually hear me complaining about my height is because I tend to quietly eliminate people from my life who make an issue of it. I don’t want to eliminate this friend, which I why I’d like her to know this. And if any other friends of mine are reading this, who might have commented on my height disparagingly at any point, and then not heard from me for a few months afterwards…well, now you know why.

And, to speak more generally: if there is a feature of somebody you know, any feature, that that person can do nothing about – even if they seem okay with it, as I (mostly) am – It is not okay to take the piss out of them for it.

It just isn’t okay.

——————————————

Addendum:

It’s 9am the following morning, and I’ve just had a quite upset phonecall from my friend who has read this blog. She is, as I thought she might be, absolutely mortified to think that she had hurt me.

She also explained a bit about the context. Apparently the girl she was introducing me to had made a remark previously about how she thought she could only find tall men attractive; and my friend said she knew someone who could make her think differently about that.

Which is something of a compliment, I think, even if she was a little clumsy to then keep referring to it when we were being introduced. People are influenced by these things.

I just wish it didn’t matter at all.

what a teacher isn’t

I was asked the other night what a teacher is. Despite having been teaching for eight years, I found it very difficult to say. It’s much easier to say what a teacher, or teaching, is not. So…

Teaching is not, in itself, a skill.

– It is more like finding yourself immersed in beautiful water, sticking your head out and saying to anyone who will listen, “OH MY GOODNESS YOU HAVE TO GET IN THIS WATER! It’s amazing…” (And, sometimes, offering a ladder for anyone unable to jump.) But you have to really be in the water first, and you have to really care about sharing it. After this, any development of the supposed ‘skill’ of teaching is peripheral; it’s just a few extra rungs on a poolside ladder.

A teacher isn’t necessarily cleverer or more mature than their students.

– They just happen to have some information, and put a value on that information, that the student doesn’t. As it happens, I am cleverer than many of my students – but by no means all of them. And the first time I meet any new student, I remind myself that any of them could be much, much cleverer than me, once they have the information I have.

A teacher doesn’t tell anyone what values to hold.

– That would be the job of a philosopher. It is not for teachers to persuade anyone to agree with their values – or the values of their institution – but for each teacher to provide opportunities for students to decide, to support or challenge their own values. For example, I am not a Tory and I wish the Conservative party little goodwill; but if one of my politics classes reach the end of a course without at least one student switching their sympathies from Labour to the Conservatives, I take it as a sign that I haven’t given them enough encouragement to challenge themselves.

Teachers are not all the same.

– The notion of a fixed set of standards that all teachers should meet is absurd if it misses the one crucial thing about them – that they really really care about what they’re teaching and who they’re teaching it to. And every teacher is different in the way they do this.

A teacher, like anyone else, is not a neutral vehicle for information…

– No person is neutral, and pretending to give neutral information entails exactly the opposite. Michael Gove’s new Teaching Standards framework contains an explicit phrase about how teachers must not expressing personal beliefs in a way which might ‘exploit pupils’ vulnerability’. This framework itself, of course, is far from politically neutral: it is an attempt to enforce the political values of Michael Gove. Additionally, it is clumsily worded and easily ridiculed. In the interests of transparency I read this section of the standards out loud to my students at the beginning of this year – they found it hilarious. We now have a running joke: any time I am asked whether a certain value or argument or policy is a good thing, I ask: ‘from whose perspective? Not mine – I wouldn’t want to exploit your vulnerability, after all.’ And we all laugh.

…and they do not insult their students’ intelligence by pretending to be.

– And after the laugh has ended, the brightest students sometimes get angry about this idea that it would be ‘exploiting their vulnerability’ to know what their teacher’s opinions are. They know it is an insult to their intelligence. They want to know what their teachers think, and why, so that they can evaluate the information they are given – bearing in mind what they know about their teachers’ biases – and decide whether they agree. I often find myself in a position where I have to give my politics classes clues about who I voted for at the last general election, and the means to assess how biased the information is which I am giving them. I hope that this is not a breach of the standards.

A teacher, when teaching, is not a representative of an institution.

– It is possible for people who work as teachers to represent the institution, and the values of the institution, for which they work. If they work for a school or college or university, they might enforce rules, check uniforms, or communicate notices to each other and to their students regarding the affairs of their institution. This is often important for the basic functioning of the institution. But this is not teaching. In teaching, the teacher represents only themselves, their own discipline and their own relationship with it. The role of the institution should be to facilitate this. We do well to ask of any institutional action which is not clearly and directly related to teaching, ‘what is the point of this, and why are we letting it take us away from the subjects we love?’

Teachers are not to be taken seriously as people.

– “A good teacher,” wrote Nietzsche, “takes nothing seriously except in relation to their students – not even themselves.” He didn’t just mean that good teachers are ridiculous people, and are aware that they are ridiculous in their willingness to give up so much of their time for the sake of other people’s understanding. He meant that the call they make, from the thing they love to the people they want to make love it, subsumes any other value they might have as people. Everything that a teacher is can be seen in their students. And eventually, that fades and nothing is left of them at all.

Teachers do not rightfully have authority.

– What teachers have is leadership – and these are two different things.

Some teachers might be disciplinarians, but disciplinarians don’t necessarily make good teachers.

– Or, often, make teachers at all. Punishment and coercion are not good teaching methods. Some teachers recognise that, but still think that good discipline over students is a necessary condition of good teaching. That belief is for teachers who are too boring or rude to give students any other more persuasive reason to listen to them.

A teacher is not afraid to be an entertainer.

If they aren’t, then nobody’s getting in the water. Sure, you can push them in; but they’ll get out as soon as they can, and never go near that pool again.

matriarchal polygyny: a modest proposal

Introduction

Whatever one thinks about Karl Marx, there is no denying that his friend Friedrich Engels was by far the cooler of the two. It was Engels who had the big parties at his house, and Engels who took Marx out drinking in Soho (and who bought all the drinks, obviously, because he was the one with the money. Which is also cool).

And coolest of all, it was Engels who was prepared to shock Victorian Britain by publishing a book about sex and relationships. Marx himself, lacking Engels’ bravery, kept sex mostly as a personal thing between himself and his wife Jenny. And, notoriously, their housekeeper Helene. (In fact, when Helene had one of Marx’s children, Engels told everyone the child was his. Some think he did this to help Marx avoid controversy. But really it was simply because Engels knew, deep down, that being a player is cool).

Engels worked harder, partied harder, and still lived longer than Marx. And so, shortly after Marx died, Engels published his solo masterpiece, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and The State. In it, he argued that the “traditional” patriarchal family structure is neither natural, nor moral, nor particularly functional. Before the invention of private property and land, Engels suggested, families were largely not patriarchal, but matriarchal groups of powerful women. These women took husbands, sometimes temporarily, for the purposes of procreation. They then raised the children together communally.

The patriarchal family, he claimed, only developed with the development of private property, as a means for those who had taken control of land and the means of production – who happened to be men) to take control of their wives and families and to subjugate them in much the same way they subjugated the working class and the rest of the material world.

Men wanted faithful wives only to guarantee that their children were their own so they could pass on their property to a legitimate heir, and so control what they owned even after they died. For that reason, they needed to ensure their wives were going to live with them and be dependent on them. With the help of bourgeois marriage law, men were able to make women their dependents and sexual servants, leading to what Engels calls the “world-historical defeat of the female sex.”

Engels views this not just as a bad thing for women, but also for men, who have traded in their own sexual freedom for a means to pass on property, with the result being prostitution and infidelity.

And it is from from this point – that the monogamous nuclear family is ultimately a bad thing – that my modest proposal originates.

 

One’s own children are a burden

It is self-evidently true that women were, through no fault of their own, tragically defeated and gain nothing whatsoever from being in a ‘traditional’ monogamous family group. There is, after all, absolutely no benefit or interest whatsoever for a woman in a relationship with a man who owns property and who has the privelege of going to work while she is left to bring up children. Bringing up children is a task of little value, and certainly not one that a man would ever take on seriously. It is therefore an unjust state of affairs that one person in a marriage has the freedom to go out and work, while another is forced to spend time with their own children.

It could therefore be pointed out that one great and fortunate step for humanity is that, as a result of the advances of feminism, both men and women are now expected to work, so that nobody of any gender has to be left with the odious responsibility of raising their own children. To an extent this has been a victory for both feminism and socialism; with our system of state schooling, we have liberated parents from wasting their precious labour time on the banal task of instilling features like reason or self-discipline in their children. We can now safely expect our childrens’ schools to do this for us, and happily we also have a schools inspectorate which can declare any school inadequate which fails to take complete responsibility for this. Engels himself thought that such a state of affairs could only come about after a communist revolution. Perhaps he was wrong about that.

 

Monogamy is the problem

But the battle is not yet won: there are still problems which are rooted in the basic structure of the monogamous family. Curiously, though, Engels thought that in a communist utopia, people would continue with monogamous relationships, but more in the nature of ‘sexual love’. And this, of course, is where Engels must be modestly challenged. Because it is not capitalism that is the problem: monogamy is the problem.

Nobody wants monogamy really. If we want to know what people really want, we must do two things: consider their nature as they have evolved, and listen to what they say they want. And also, what they say they don’t want.

 

What men want

With men, it is very clear. Men want sex. And they want it with as many women as possible. We know this from what they say when they do not have it, and what they say when they have it with one person and yet still want to have it with others and can’t. They are unhappy with the situation.

There is a perfect evolutionary explanation for this: they want to have as many children as possible, with many different mothers, to increase the likelihood that their genes will be passed on. Contrary to Engels’ claim that only capitalist bourgeois society causes infidelity in men, it is in fact perfectly natural for men to want to have children with several different women.

However, they cannot do this, because the expectations of capitalism are such that they can only pass on their property to the child of one mother. Capitalist bourgeois values have therefore been so entrenched in women that they believe it is in some way wrong to have sex with a man who may be having sex with other women. They know they could, but they believe they shouldn’t, unless they are in a monogamous relationship with him. The result is that many men are frustrated.

Men are also frequently frustrated with the responsibilities placed on them by having so much power in the workplace. As we know, the workplace is where all men are given almost infinite power and opportunity, in comparison with women. But for some reason, they do not want it. And this is understandable, because men are fundamentally incompetent. They feel pressure to work hard and take on more powerful roles with more professional responsibility. Similarly they feel a responsibility to take charge in the home and be the head of their household; and to make important decisions which, deep down, they know their basic foolishness renders them ill-equipped to make.

They dislike this, and would like nothing more than a life with absolutely no power or responsibility, where they are able to relax and have sex with many women. But current family structures and working traditions deny them this possibility.

 

 

What women want

Women, meanwhile, are completely different. Women know that they could easily have sex with a man at any time: they simply need to ask. But they don’t. While it is natural for men to want to be polygamous, and also natural for them to demand complete commitment from their partners (in order to ensure their own genes are passed on), this is not the case for women. This is because, as everyone knows, women are far less likely to cheat. It is almost like they don’t know how.

This may be because, as outlined above, bourgeois capitalism has taught them that they must know who the father of the child is so that he can pass on his property. Or it may be because, since they bear children and never have the worry about whether the child is theirs, they evolved simply to desire security for their babies, rather than the spreading of their genes.

Either way, women do not ever complain, as men do, that they are not having sex with enough different people: women complain that they cannot find ‘the one’. Women just want to find one man who will give them those babies. It is no wonder they so easily fell victim to the capitalist bourgeois men who promised them this, in exchange for stripping them of all power.

For unlike men, women still do not have the power they deserve. Women are clearly more sensible and intelligent than men, but even in post-feminist societies with socialised childcare, they still do not earn as much as men on average. Women deserve the opportunity to work longer hours to earn money, to gain the power, and these opportunities are routinely denied to them. With this economic power would come the possibility of making more important decisions around the home, which women also know that they would be better at.

What women need, therefore, is not simply equal responsibility, power and opportunities to men, but more responsibility, power and opportunity than men. Otherwise they are never to achieve truly equal responsibility, power and opportunity.

 

A modest proposal

In summary: Men want sex with many women and can’t get it; but they don’t want power, either at work or at home, which they are ill-suited to and yet are given it simply by asking. Women want power and are kept from it, while knowing they could have easily have sex but not really just wanting one man to love them.

There is an obvious solution, a new kind of family structure which, if adopted, would solve all the problems of men and women alike: Matriarchal Polygyny. Polygyny, to clarify, is the practice of one man being partnered with more than one wife. This should not be confused with polygamy, (either gender having more than one spouse) or polyandry, (which is a wife having many husbands), or the grotesque free-for-all that is sometimes called ‘polyamory’. It is specifically polygyny.

One man would have anything between three and ten wives.

But there is a twist to this: my proposal is not like standard polygyny, the way it is practiced by Mormons or many Muslims in the Middle East. My proposal is for matriarchal polygyny: in every case, women would be in charge.

There is no doubt that if responsibility was taken out of the hands of men, and the job of running both families and society was taken over by women, as a sisterhood together, things would be better. Men don’t want to get things done and are naturally competitive; but women are both immune from such laziness and, as we know, never compete with each other.

The role of women would therefore be like a combination of queen bees and worker bees in a bee-hive. They would, together, do the work that needed doing, arrange communal schooling and socialisation for the children of all so that they did not have to worry about their own children’s upbringing, and take on the economic power and responsibility at work that they have always desired but been kept from attaining, and make the important decisions for the family that they have been prevented from making.

Women could, in family groups together, have it all. These would not be traditional families – they would be ‘mammilies’.

Men, meanwhile, would be relieved of their responsibilities and kept as drones are in a bee-hive. Their role would be to relax and enjoy their new role as sex-slaves for their many wives. It is, after all, what men have always dreamed of.

Everybody would be happy.

 

An apparent problem, and a solution

A critic might point out that there is an obvious problem for this: there would be too many men (as least to begin with, while society waited for technology to make it possible to grow the exact number of men that were required in test tubes). With this would come a danger of male babies being born unwanted, as there is a chance that mammilies would not be able to find enough wives for them.

There is, again, a modest but obvious solution to this. We can easily do swapsies with Chinese families, where the one-child policy has male babies considerably more desirable than females. No doubt the Chinese government, exemplary as they are in knowing what the people of China want, could facilitate this. Perhaps it could even make a Sino-Western world war less of an inevitability.

 

Conclusion

There is work to be done. Changes in government policy must be made in order to ensure that this family structure becomes the norm as swiftly as possible, and it should be acknowledged by all that groups of women should be in charge, should have a man to love them and to give them babies (this is, after all, the only thing men are good for) and to take all the positions of power that are required to make the world right.

Which is – to return to where we began – how Karl Marx’s family actually worked. After all, Karl never worked or earned money, so he never had any economic power over his family. And everyone knows that the real brains and power, the Queen Bee behind the Marx hive, was always Jenny. She got things done and kept her family in order – with the help of the housekeeper, of course – both of them using their drone, Karl, to satisfy their sexual needs and bringing all the children up together, while giving Karl enough spare time to write Capital and go drinking with his very cool friend Engels without having to worry about pesky things like responsibilities. And everyone was happy.

Matriarchal polygyny: if it’s good enough for the Marx mammily, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

on the problem of not being quite mad enough

Tonight, out of the blue and on my way home from a gig – a really fun one, in fact – I had a bit of a brainwave.

It’s not original, of course, but it’s this: that stand-up comedy is not for people without some serious emotional issues. Really well adjusted people – however funny they naturally are – really wouldn’t do it. Even relatively sane people like me, although we can get solid laughs, can never be that great.

In actual fact, many great comedians aren’t that funny as people. Some are quiet and withdrawn; some are really tiresome because, in Steve Martin’s words, they are ‘never off’, their brains having become machines of gags/banter/whimsy and they become exhausting to be around; and many, like the people I spent this evening with, are polite and intelligent and lovely. But we are no funnier than the average person.

The difference is that I don’t think any of us are without some kind of serious emotional flaw. The problem is, after six years of stand-up, I don’t think I’ve ever yet been quite emotionally flawed enough, for long enough, to ever get really good.

I mean, considering what it takes to actually get that good. Because you can’t just rock up and be consistently funny. You have to write material, rehearse it, go out to gigs (often terrible ones), night after night after night, and every time ask yourself, ‘why didn’t they laugh as much at that bit as I wanted them to…?’ And analyse it and do it differently the next night, over and over again…

That takes an incredible amount of drive – a kind of drive I have had, sporadically, for a few months at a time before getting exhausted. But that isn’t enough. You need a drive that commits your entire being to it. And that drive doesn’t come from nowhere.

Basically, you have to really really care whether people like you or not. I mean, really CARE. If you have some talent, of course, you can rock up, mess around a bit, do some old material and call it consistent, or competent, or whatever. But it’s not storming. If you have a decent level of confidence in yourself and your own value as a person, you can be okay. But never really good.

To be that good takes a horrible, nagging, worm-like insecurity that eats you from the inside out. But it drives you to be funny.

And I worry, secretly but often, that every time I turn up to a gig underprepared and do respectably but not stormingly, it’s because I just… well, I just don’t worry enough about whether the audience will like me or not.

Perhaps this is, in itself, my flaw.

So I carry on, competently gigging, semi-regularly, until I’m fucked up enough to really need to get good…

heathen, infidel, scab

I broke a strike on Wednesday. I’ve never done that before.

I’m breaking a lot of habits at the moment (for example, the habit of ‘not blogging’ that I’d fallen into). Even writing on this blog about Wednesday’s strike means breaking another habit: I usually make it a rule never to write about my day job.

But on this occasion I want to. It’s worth explaining, I think, why I’m a member of the National Union of Teachers but didn’t take part in the London-based strike on Wednesday.

For a start, it wasn’t for the money. I don’t feel good about breaking the strike and so I decided in advance – at the excellent suggestion of one of my students – that whatever money I earned that day will go to something worthwhile. Probably the strike fund (if only to keep on decent terms with some Union members).

It also wasn’t because I think the government’s current offer on pensions reform is any good. It is a big stinking heap of horseshit. Admittedly there’s a whopping great generation of homeowning baby-boomers about to enter the longest and most luxurious retirement any generation has ever, or ever will, be lucky enough to enjoy; but I’m not persuaded that this has to be paid for by the next generation of teachers, many of whom (certainly those in London) can’t even afford to get a mortgage and so will be doubly screwed with accommodation costs when we retire, half-dead, at 68. There’s a million other ways to pay for that generation’s retirement over the next 100 years and we have to find a fairer one.

Plus, even despite the economics there’s a question of contracts at stake. Nobody is saying that the baby boomers should have their obscenely generous pensions cut, because they are thought to have worked through their careers for those pensions and to remove them now would be to short-change them. But the government acts as if, since it would be a travesty to short-change that blessed generation, it’s the next generation that must be short-changed instead. (There’s been a lot of fuss made about the ‘Granny Tax’ since the budget, but actually the removal of income tax breaks for people over 65 is one of the few really fair things this government have done).

Either way, the fact that teachers in the UK get (or used to get) brilliant pensions was a pretty major factor in my decision to become one, and the same is true of many of my colleagues. It doesn’t matter how old you are – to employ people and commit them to a job based on certain terms of service, and then change those terms later on, is a dickish thing to do. So to change the rules on teachers’ pensions once many people of my generation have dedicated ourselves to that profession is outright nasty.

So why didn’t I strike on Wednesday?

Because striking wouldn’t have helped any of this situation, even if every school in London had been shut completely.

What the Unions seem to have missed is that Tory ‘modernisers’ like Gove and Maude actually want the unions to strike so that they can be discredited in some kind of moral battle in the minds of Middle Englanders. They want strikes so that they can face them with aggression – and probably violence, like Thatcher did – while making Ed Miliband look even weaker than he already is.

The government have deliberately put an insulting offer on the table, made token tactical concessions after last year’s strike in order to look like they’ve been reasonable, and then been pretty clear that what’s on the table now, crappy as it still is, is the best offer we’ll get, in the hope that the NUT and other unions will take the bait.

So, while it’s possible that some of the industrial action last year had some small effect on the negotiations (though probably not as much as the union leaders would have us believe), Wednesday’s strike was just playing into Michael Gove’s hands, and as a result would have achieved nothing good.

Whereas for my students on the other hand, a day of teaching lost with so little time to go before their exams in May could very easily have made the tiny difference between getting the grades they need for college/university and not getting them – with whatever future consequences that might bring. For me, it certainly would have been too big a potential loss to have risked it just so I could stand behind the NUT’s leader while she threw her toys out of the pram (having failed to get us a better deal in the pension negotiations).

So. I weighed up what would be gained from striking against what would be lost, and didn’t let religious dogma get in the way.

That’s right. Religious dogma.

When I told my colleagues I wasn’t striking, and explained my reasons, pretty much every single one of them said the same thing: “but what about the principle of solidarity?”

So I should make my position on this clear: ‘solidarity’ amongst groups who are doing the wrong thing is bullshit. Doing the wrong thing – ‘but doing it together’ – is not admirable. It’s foolish. It’s that kind of uncritical herd-like behaviour which drives lemmings off cliffs, countries into wars, and humans into death camps. The principle of solidarity for its own sake is not to be admired.

I have a lot of respect for Trade Unionism as an ideology; that’s why I’m a member of one. I think it’s a necessary and important counterbalance to the tendency of employers to exploit their workers, and the conditions that workers would have to suffer if they had no possibility of grouping together to improve those conditions does not bear thinking about.

Trade Unionism – like any human political ideology – can be useful when it is guided by what James and Dewey would have called a melioristic motive: that is, when its values are genuinely guided by an empirically-informed attempt to improve the world, to make our experience of life better and more satisfying. In other words, the principle of union solidarity has value when following that principle will make a real improvement to our lives.

But in my view, the point at which ideology becomes religious dogma is when it loses that meliorism and starts to consider its values as having some intrinsic value – not as a means to some end, but as ends in themselves. When the principles, for example the principle of ‘solidarity’, become more important than whatever end they were originally meant to achieve.

Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to know when that has happened, because people find it hard to recognise when the original melioristic end has become unattainable. But when the original melioristic end does become unattainable, it vanishes from view; the principles alone take on the appearance of ends which can apparently justify any means. At this point a religion is born, and sane individuals start behaving in ridiculous ways in order to follow the principle without really understanding why.

Nevertheless, they still hold these principles to be the most morally necessary thing possible, and are proud to express disgust at those who don’t. They even create new names for them: ‘heathen’, ‘infidel’, ‘scab’. And they follow this principle and this logic to the end.

Like lemmings.

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