Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Muslims need to be tolerant too
by Christopher Hitchens
Two weeks ago, I wrote that the arguments against the construction of the Cordoba Initiative center in lower Manhattan were so stupid and demagogic as to be beneath notice.
From the beginning, though, I pointed out that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf was no great bargain and that his Cordoba Initiative was full of euphemisms about Islamic jihad and Islamic theocracy. I mentioned his sinister belief that the United States was partially responsible for the assault on the World Trade Center and his refusal to take a position on the racist Hamas dictatorship in Gaza. The more one reads through his statements, the more alarming it gets. For example, here is Rauf's editorial on the upheaval that followed the brutal hijacking of the Iranian elections in 2009. Regarding President Obama, he advised that:
"He should say his administration respects many of the guiding principles of the 1979 revolution—to establish a government that expresses the will of the people; a just government, based on the idea of Vilayet-i-faquih, that establishes the rule of law."
Coyly untranslated here (perhaps for "outreach" purposes), Vilayet-i-faquih is the special term promulgated by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to describe the idea that all of Iranian society is under the permanent stewardship (sometimes rendered as guardianship) of the mullahs. Under this dispensation, "the will of the people" is a meaningless expression, because "the people" are the wards and children of the clergy. It is the justification for a clerical supreme leader, whose rule is impervious to elections and who can pick and choose the candidates and, if it comes to that, the results. It is extremely controversial within Shiite Islam. (Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq, for example, does not endorse it.) As for those numerous Iranians who are not Shiites, it reminds them yet again that they are not considered to be real citizens of the Islamic Republic.
I do not find myself reassured by the fact that Imam Rauf publicly endorses the most extreme and repressive version of Muslim theocracy. The letterhead of the statement, incidentally, describes him as the Cordoba Initiative's "Founder and Visionary." Why does that not delight me, either?
Emboldened by the crass nature of the opposition to the center, its defenders have started to talk as if it represented no problem at all and as if the question were solely one of religious tolerance. It would be nice if this were true. But tolerance is one of the first and most awkward questions raised by any examination of Islamism.
We are wrong to talk as if the only subject was that of terrorism. As Western Europe has already found to its cost, local Muslim leaders have a habit, once they feel strong enough, of making demands of the most intolerant kind. Sometimes it will be calls for censorship of anything "offensive" to Islam. Sometimes it will be demands for sexual segregation in schools and swimming pools. The script is becoming a very familiar one. And those who make such demands are of course usually quite careful to avoid any association with violence. They merely hint that, if their demands are not taken seriously, there just might be a teeny smidgeon of violence from some other unnamed quarter …
As for the gorgeous mosaic of religious pluralism, it's easy enough to find mosque Web sites and DVDs that peddle the most disgusting attacks on Jews, Hindus, Christians, unbelievers, and other Muslims—to say nothing of insane diatribes about women and homosexuals. This is why the fake term Islamophobia is so dangerous: It insinuates that any reservations about Islam must ipso facto be "phobic." A phobia is an irrational fear or dislike. Islamic preaching very often manifests precisely this feature, which is why suspicion of it is by no means irrational.
From my window, I can see the beautiful minaret of the Washington, D.C., mosque on Massachusetts Avenue. It is situated at the heart of the capital city's diplomatic quarter, and it is where President Bush went immediately after 9/11 to make his gesture toward the "religion of peace." A short while ago, the wife of a new ambassador told me that she had been taking her dog for a walk when a bearded man accosted her and brusquely warned her not to take the animal so close to the sacred precincts. Muslim cabdrivers in other American cities have already refused to take passengers with "unclean" canines.
Another feature of my local mosque that I don't entirely like is the display of flags outside, purportedly showing all those nations that are already Muslim. Some of these flags are of countries like Malaysia, where Islam barely has a majority, or of Turkey, which still has a secular constitution.
At the United Nations, the voting bloc of the Organization of the Islamic Conference nations is already proposing a resolution that would circumscribe any criticism of religion in general and of Islam in particular. So, before he is used by our State Department on any more goodwill missions overseas, I would like to see Imam Rauf asked a few searching questions about his support for clerical dictatorship in, just for now, Iran.
Let us by all means make the "Ground Zero" debate a test of tolerance. But this will be a one-way street unless it is to be a test of Muslim tolerance as well.
Ways in which women outperform men
In an economy that is increasingly service based, the greater docility and social skills of women often give them an edge. They are good at being pleasant and good at doing what they are told. What is not mentioned below is that they are less creative and less likely to take the risks that are essential to innovation. Also omitted is any discussion of the IQ distribution. High IQ people run most things in our society and there are far more men than women in the top IQ ranges. And men don't get "hormonal", either.
What does clearly emerge from the rather overwrought collection of tales below, however, is that "affirmative action" for women should have died long ago
Man has been the dominant sex since, well, the dawn of mankind. But for the first time in human history, that is changing—and with shocking speed. Cultural and economic changes always reinforce each other. And the global economy is evolving in a way that is eroding the historical preference for male children, worldwide.
Over several centuries, South Korea, for instance, constructed one of the most rigid patriarchal societies in the world. Many wives who failed to produce male heirs were abused and treated as domestic servants; some families prayed to spirits to kill off girl children. Then, in the 1970s and ’80s, the government embraced an industrial revolution and encouraged women to enter the labor force. Women moved to the city and went to college. They advanced rapidly, from industrial jobs to clerical jobs to professional work. The traditional order began to crumble soon after.
In 1990, the country’s laws were revised so that women could keep custody of their children after a divorce and inherit property. In 2005, the court ruled that women could register children under their own names. As recently as 1985, about half of all women in a national survey said they “must have a son.” That percentage fell slowly until 1991 and then plummeted to just over 15 percent by 2003. Male preference in South Korea “is over,” says Monica Das Gupta, a demographer and Asia expert at the World Bank. “It happened so fast. It’s hard to believe it, but it is.” The same shift is now beginning in other rapidly industrializing countries such as India and China.
Up to a point, the reasons behind this shift are obvious. As thinking and communicating have come to eclipse physical strength and stamina as the keys to economic success, those societies that take advantage of the talents of all their adults, not just half of them, have pulled away from the rest. And because geopolitics and global culture are, ultimately, Darwinian, other societies either follow suit or end up marginalized.
In 2006, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development devised the Gender, Institutions and Development Database, which measures the economic and political power of women in 162 countries. With few exceptions, the greater the power of women, the greater the country’s economic success. Aid agencies have started to recognize this relationship and have pushed to institute political quotas in about 100 countries, essentially forcing women into power in an effort to improve those countries’ fortunes. In some war-torn states, women are stepping in as a sort of maternal rescue team. Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, portrayed her country as a sick child in need of her care during her campaign five years ago. Postgenocide Rwanda elected to heal itself by becoming the first country with a majority of women in parliament.
In feminist circles, these social, political, and economic changes are always cast as a slow, arduous form of catch-up in a continuing struggle for female equality. But in the U.S., the world’s most advanced economy, something much more remarkable seems to be happening. American parents are beginning to choose to have girls over boys. As they imagine the pride of watching a child grow and develop and succeed as an adult, it is more often a girl that they see in their mind’s eye.
What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men? For a long time, evolutionary psychologists have claimed that we are all imprinted with adaptive imperatives from a distant past: men are faster and stronger and hardwired to fight for scarce resources, and that shows up now as a drive to win on Wall Street; women are programmed to find good providers and to care for their offspring, and that is manifested in more- nurturing and more-flexible behavior, ordaining them to domesticity. This kind of thinking frames our sense of the natural order.
But what if men and women were fulfilling not biological imperatives but social roles, based on what was more efficient throughout a long era of human history? What if that era has now come to an end? More to the point, what if the economics of the new era are better suited to women?
Once you open your eyes to this possibility, the evidence is all around you. It can be found, most immediately, in the wreckage of the Great Recession, in which three-quarters of the 8 million jobs lost were lost by men. The worst-hit industries were overwhelmingly male and deeply identified with macho: construction, manufacturing, high finance. Some of these jobs will come back, but the overall pattern of dislocation is neither temporary nor random. The recession merely revealed—and accelerated—a profound economic shift that has been going on for at least 30 years, and in some respects even longer.
Earlier this year, for the first time in American history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women, who now hold a majority of the nation’s jobs. The working class, which has long defined our notions of masculinity, is slowly turning into a matriarchy, with men increasingly absent from the home and women making all the decisions.
Women dominate today’s colleges and professional schools—for every two men who will receive a B.A. this year, three women will do the same. Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women. Indeed, the U.S. economy is in some ways becoming a kind of traveling sisterhood: upper-class women leave home and enter the workforce, creating domestic jobs for other women to fill.
Yes, the U.S. still has a wage gap, one that can be convincingly explained—at least in part—by discrimination. Yes, women still do most of the child care. And yes, the upper reaches of society are still dominated by men. But given the power of the forces pushing at the economy, this setup feels like the last gasp of a dying age rather than the permanent establishment. Dozens of college women I interviewed for this story assumed that they very well might be the ones working while their husbands stayed at home, either looking for work or minding the children. Guys, one senior remarked to me, “are the new ball and chain.” It may be happening slowly and unevenly, but it’s unmistakably happening: in the long view, the modern economy is becoming a place where women hold the cards.
In his final book, The Bachelors’ Ball, published in 2007, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes the changing gender dynamics of Béarn, the region in southwestern France where he grew up. The eldest sons once held the privileges of patrimonial loyalty and filial inheritance in Béarn. But over the decades, changing economic forces turned those privileges into curses. Although the land no longer produced the impressive income it once had, the men felt obligated to tend it. Meanwhile, modern women shunned farm life, lured away by jobs and adventure in the city. They occasionally returned for the traditional balls, but the men who awaited them had lost their prestige and become unmarriageable. This is the image that keeps recurring to me, one that Bourdieu describes in his book: at the bachelors’ ball, the men, self-conscious about their diminished status, stand stiffly, their hands by their sides, as the women twirl away.
The role reversal that’s under way between American men and women shows up most obviously and painfully in the working class. In recent years, male support groups have sprung up throughout the Rust Belt and in other places where the postindustrial economy has turned traditional family roles upside down. Some groups help men cope with unemployment, and others help them reconnect with their alienated families. Mustafaa El-Scari, a teacher and social worker, leads some of these groups in Kansas City. El-Scari has studied the sociology of men and boys set adrift, and he considers it his special gift to get them to open up and reflect on their new condition. The day I visited one of his classes, earlier this year, he was facing a particularly resistant crowd.
None of the 30 or so men sitting in a classroom at a downtown Kansas City school have come for voluntary adult enrichment. Having failed to pay their child support, they were given the choice by a judge to go to jail or attend a weekly class on fathering, which to them seemed the better deal. This week’s lesson, from a workbook called Quenching the Father Thirst, was supposed to involve writing a letter to a hypothetical estranged 14-year-old daughter named Crystal, whose father left her when she was a baby. But El-Scari has his own idea about how to get through to this barely awake, skeptical crew, and letters to Crystal have nothing to do with it.
Like them, he explains, he grew up watching Bill Cosby living behind his metaphorical “white picket fence”—one man, one woman, and a bunch of happy kids. “Well, that check bounced a long time ago,” he says. “Let’s see,” he continues, reading from a worksheet. What are the four kinds of paternal authority? Moral, emotional, social, and physical. “But you ain’t none of those in that house. All you are is a paycheck, and now you ain’t even that. And if you try to exercise your authority, she’ll call 911. How does that make you feel? You’re supposed to be the authority, and she says, ‘Get out of the house, bitch.’ She’s calling you ‘bitch’!”
The men are black and white, their ages ranging from about 20 to 40. A couple look like they might have spent a night or two on the streets, but the rest look like they work, or used to. Now they have put down their sodas, and El-Scari has their attention, so he gets a little more philosophical. “Who’s doing what?” he asks them. “What is our role? Everyone’s telling us we’re supposed to be the head of a nuclear family, so you feel like you got robbed. It’s toxic, and poisonous, and it’s setting us up for failure.” He writes on the board: $85,000. “This is her salary.” Then: $12,000. “This is your salary. Who’s the damn man? Who’s the man now?” A murmur rises. “That’s right. She’s the man.”
Judging by the men I spoke with afterward, El-Scari seemed to have pegged his audience perfectly. Darren Henderson was making $33 an hour laying sheet metal, until the real-estate crisis hit and he lost his job. Then he lost his duplex—“there’s my little piece of the American dream”—then his car. And then he fell behind on his child-support payments. “They make it like I’m just sitting around,” he said, “but I’m not.” As proof of his efforts, he took out a new commercial driver’s permit and a bartending license, and then threw them down on the ground like jokers, for all the use they’d been. His daughter’s mother had a $50,000-a-year job and was getting her master’s degree in social work. He’d just signed up for food stamps, which is just about the only social-welfare program a man can easily access. Recently she’d seen him waiting at the bus stop. “Looked me in the eye,” he recalled, “and just drove on by.”
The men in that room, almost without exception, were casualties of the end of the manufacturing era. Most of them had continued to work with their hands even as demand for manual labor was declining. Since 2000, manufacturing has lost almost 6 million jobs, more than a third of its total workforce, and has taken in few young workers. The housing bubble masked this new reality for a while, creating work in construction and related industries. Many of the men I spoke with had worked as electricians or builders; one had been a successful real-estate agent. Now those jobs are gone too. Henderson spent his days shuttling between unemployment offices and job interviews, wondering what his daughter might be doing at any given moment. In 1950, roughly one in 20 men of prime working age, like Henderson, was not working; today that ratio is about one in five, the highest ever recorded.
Men dominate just two of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most over the next decade: janitor and computer engineer. Women have everything else—nursing, home health assistance, child care, food preparation. Many of the new jobs, says Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress, “replace the things that women used to do in the home for free.” None is especially high-paying. But the steady accumulation of these jobs adds up to an economy that, for the working class, has become more amenable to women than to men.
The list of growing jobs is heavy on nurturing professions, in which women, ironically, seem to benefit from old stereotypes and habits. Theoretically, there is no reason men should not be qualified. But they have proved remarkably unable to adapt. Over the course of the past century, feminism has pushed women to do things once considered against their nature—first enter the workforce as singles, then continue to work while married, then work even with small children at home. Many professions that started out as the province of men are now filled mostly with women—secretary and teacher come to mind. Yet I’m not aware of any that have gone the opposite way. Nursing schools have tried hard to recruit men in the past few years, with minimal success. Teaching schools, eager to recruit male role models, are having a similarly hard time. The range of acceptable masculine roles has changed comparatively little, and has perhaps even narrowed as men have shied away from some careers women have entered. As Jessica Grose wrote in Slate, men seem “fixed in cultural aspic.” And with each passing day, they lag further behind.
As we recover from the Great Recession, some traditionally male jobs will return—men are almost always harder-hit than women in economic downturns because construction and manufacturing are more cyclical than service industries—but that won’t change the long-term trend. When we look back on this period, argues Jamie Ladge, a business professor at Northeastern University, we will see it as a “turning point for women in the workforce.”
The economic and cultural power shift from men to women would be hugely significant even if it never extended beyond working-class America. But women are also starting to dominate middle management, and a surprising number of professional careers as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women now hold 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs—up from 26.1 percent in 1980. They make up 54 percent of all accountants and hold about half of all banking and insurance jobs. About a third of America’s physicians are now women, as are 45 percent of associates in law firms—and both those percentages are rising fast.
A white-collar economy values raw intellectual horsepower, which men and women have in equal amounts [Not so at the top of the range]. It also requires communication skills and social intelligence, areas in which women, according to many studies, have a slight edge. Perhaps most important—for better or worse—it increasingly requires formal education credentials, which women are more prone to acquire, particularly early in adulthood. Just about the only professions in which women still make up a relatively small minority of newly minted workers are engineering and those calling on a hard-science background, and even in those areas, women have made strong gains since the 1970s.
Office work has been steadily adapting to women—and in turn being reshaped by them—for 30 years or more. Joel Garreau picks up on this phenomenon in his 1991 book, Edge City, which explores the rise of suburbs that are home to giant swaths of office space along with the usual houses and malls. Companies began moving out of the city in search not only of lower rent but also of the “best educated, most conscientious, most stable workers.” They found their brightest prospects among “underemployed females living in middle-class communities on the fringe of the old urban areas.” As Garreau chronicles the rise of suburban office parks, he places special emphasis on 1978, the peak year for women entering the workforce.
When brawn was off the list of job requirements, women often measured up better than men. They were smart, dutiful, and, as long as employers could make the jobs more convenient for them, more reliable. The 1999 movie Office Space was maybe the first to capture how alien and dispiriting the office park can be for men. Disgusted by their jobs and their boss, Peter and his two friends embezzle money and start sleeping through their alarm clocks. At the movie’s end, a male co-worker burns down the office park, and Peter abandons desk work for a job in construction.
Near the top of the jobs pyramid, of course, the upward march of women stalls. Prominent female CEOs, past and present, are so rare that they count as minor celebrities, and most of us can tick off their names just from occasionally reading the business pages: Meg Whitman at eBay, Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard, Anne Mulcahy and Ursula Burns at Xerox, Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo; the accomplishment is considered so extraordinary that Whitman and Fiorina are using it as the basis for political campaigns. Only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and the number has never risen much above that.
East German dreams
Excerpt from a BOOK REVIEW of "The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker", by Mary Fulbrook
In the past decade, a number of middle-class radical acquaintances of mine have made a sort of pilgrimage to Cuba, to check out the country before it finally opens up to the likes of McDonald’s, Starbucks and Toyota. For some, Cuba has become an anti-consumerist paradise, even if actually living there is far from heavenly. It is surprising that former anti-Stalinists, with a long background in Trotskyist organisations, would slobber enthusiastically about Cuba’s welfare and healthcare system. So much for ‘neither Washington nor Moscow’.
Recently, there has been a similarly warm reappraisal of another Stalinist outpost: the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The GDR was made up of the portion of eastern Germany handed over to the Soviet Union in the postwar carve-up and existed from 1946 until 1990, when it was reunited with West Germany. The German term Ostalgie describes the feelings of ex-GDR citizens who miss aspects of life in the Stalinist state. Many Ossies (easterners) have started to complain about the overly negative press their former homeland tends to get. It is this ‘balanced reappraisal’, of putting former GDR citizens ‘at the centre of their history’, that provides the research foundation for Mary Fulbrook’s The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker. Fulbrook, a British academic, was intrigued to find that more and more GDR citizens were openly discussing ‘fond memories’ about what appeared to be little more than an open prison (though with worse rations).
The term ‘People’s State’ seems bitterly ironic given the wholly artificial creation of the GDR in postwar Germany. German citizens had no say in the division of their country between the Allies and the Soviet Union. For those living in the eastern sector, this imposed settlement had more brutalising and damaging consequences than those fortunate enough to remain on the western side of the border. Once this deeply peculiar and artificial state had stabilised, and the deprivations of the immediate postwar period had subsided, Fulbrook argues, there was active participation in the GDR from ordinary East German citizens. And it is the contemporary absence of this ‘widespread sense of community and collective responsibility’ that partly informs the fad for Ostalgie in Germany today.
Even by the standards of Stalinist repression, GDR citizens were under greater scrutiny and surveillance than anywhere else in the Eastern Bloc. The GDR secret police, the Stasi, had some three million of the country’s citizens under surveillance (the country’s population was about 16 million in 1990). This was mostly down to the fact that the use of force was the only way to get the country working.
This surveillance society was also informed by the distrust the political elites had towards their citizens: the potential ‘class enemies’, the ‘secret supporters of Hitler’, over whom they were now ruling. The bitterness old German leftists had towards fascist activists explains why some GDR citizens were also willing to spy and inform on those ‘suspected’ of being against socialism.
Unfortunately for the SED, the Federal Democratic Republic (FDR) in West Germany was far better at getting good-quality food and consumer goods into the shops. Exhortations to anti-fascism wore thin when decent clothes, cars and groceries were in short supply in the East, which was particularly embarrassing when the GDR’s stated goal was the material betterment of all. As such, the GDR’s limited ability to compete with the FDR’s higher productivity was a persistent problem for the ruling bureaucracy. After East German workers downed tools and staged a serious uprising in 1953, attempts to improve the quality and variety of consumer goods - rather than the previous obsession with heavy industry - became the main direction of the GDR. Elsewhere, the bureaucracy attempted to compensate for the absence of consumer goods – for example, citizens had to wait 15 years for the privilege of owning a Trabant car - by providing a wide range of cultural activities, crèche facilities for young families and a commitment to gender equality.
Fulbrook finds that many Ossies speak warmly about the recreational facilities, the engaging cultural activities and the cheap holidays available in the GDR. And this is a recurring theme throughout The People’s State: that GDR citizens were able to lead ‘perfectly ordinary lives’ of work, leisure and raising a family. Although Fulbrook doesn’t in any way gloss over the grotesque inadequacies of the GDR, celebrating the fact that adults could get on with the job of procreation and recreation is setting the bar quite low as to what qualifies as a successful society. Surely a communist society should aim to facilitate extraordinary lives, of greater leisure time and experimentalism, of weekend trips to the moon and fantastic new discoveries? Cheap camping holidays in the Baltic are a poor substitute.
The other problem with Fulbrook’s ‘perfectly ordinary lives’ standpoint is that measuring social progress becomes a rather subjective process. For Fulbrook, the fact that young families in the 1960s and early 1970s could find contentment and happiness within the GDR’s ‘socialist new towns’ and collective recreational activities is proof that this warped state had something going for it.
Fulbrook is genuine and sincere in her aim to be scrupulously academic and unbiased in The People’s State, but she does appear to be influenced by the irksome ‘happiness’ agenda, and its corollary of growth scepticism. Rather than exploring in detail why the GDR failed to stimulate economic growth, Fulbrook is keen to show how the recreational aspects of GDR life provided more than adequate compensation for the lack of fresh bananas and quality jeans. So when citizens were helping to construct new socialist towns, the sense of collective spirit generated by the project appears to Fulbrook to be more important than the quality of materials being used.
Still, at least Fulbrook doesn’t buy into the Western left’s prejudices about the ‘marvels’ of the Eastern Bloc’s healthcare system. Far from the GDR excelling at caring for the sick and elderly, Fulbook found a healthcare system that was even worse than in Western European countries. Medicines and machines were in short supply; problems of staff shortages meant hospitals and care homes were in a state of disrepair; and the quality of services was meagre, too.
Far from being the apex of a socialist paradise, the health system in the GDR was just like other aspects of the command economy: inefficient, wasteful and incapable of using labour productively. In fact, the SED’s priority of producing consumer goods, at least to offset any further revolt by its citizens, meant that many problems in the GDR’s health services were overlooked.
At the start of The People’s State, Fulbrook is careful to highlight the problem of nostalgia when conducting social research. She notes that the passing of time can lead individuals to put a positive gloss on rather downbeat times; rose-tinted memories are hardly a reliable starting point for a research hypothesis. Nevertheless, it does seem that a substantial number of former GDR citizens haven’t found paradise in the unified Federal Republic of Germany. In one recent piece of sociological research, a former GDR citizen said they felt like ‘an immigrant in their own country’. Ironically enough, divisions between Ossies and Wessies are greater now than they were when Germany was physically divided.
This feeling of anomie and rootlessness expressed by Ossies, however, has less to do with the ‘marvels’ of the old GDR and more to do with how the West has changed. What’s striking about ex-GDR citizens’ complaints of ‘not being part of society anymore’ is how such sentiments have been expressed by workers in the West, too. Certainly in Britain, a country that has gone further in distancing itself from its past traditions and solidarities than many other places, many workers also feel like they don’t ‘fit in’ with the norms of New Britain. They, too, feel ‘unwelcome’ by an ever-more remote and disdainful political elite.
Although living standards have never been higher in Europe, there has also never been a weaker sense of what it means to be a citizen of Germany, Britain, France, Holland, etc. The problem of anomie expressed by former GDR citizens is actually one that is acutely felt by many citizens across Europe, particularly among older generations who were used to being ‘part of society’ and were encouraged to act as citizens in a meaningful way.
Ironically, the most distasteful aspects of the old GDR – lack of freedom and rights, extensive state surveillance, the ‘suspicion’ that the masses are fascists-in-waiting – are all now found in the West, including Britain.
The People’s State is a fascinating, compelling, thoroughly researched book on what life was like in the former German Democratic Republic. It’s also a relief to read something about Germany that isn’t just about the Third Reich and, in the pre-history of the GDR, it’s a pointer to new generations that the most economically advanced country in Europe was once home to the most politicised and organised working class (not for nothing does Frankfurt still have a ‘Karl Marx Avenue’ and ‘Rosa Luxemburg Street’).
As with all history books, the themes and observations are informed by contemporary ideas as much as events from the past. At times, Fulbrook appears influenced by today’s anti-materialism and the importance of ‘psychological wellbeing’ and is thus far kinder to the old GDR than she needs to be. Nevertheless, by raising the question as to why so many Ossies are yearning for the past, she prompts a broader question as to why many ordinary people in the West actually feel the same.
The incorrectness of Enid Blyton again
Top-down tinkering with Enid Blyton’s books implies children can’t cope with difficult and offensive words. But they can.
This month, Hodder, the publishers of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, is relaunching all 21 books with sensitive text revisions and new covers in order to appeal to a new generation of readers. The owner of the Blyton brand and intellectual property, Chorion, believes that getting rid of the outdated language will mean that annual sales figures, currently at around half a million copies, will soar.
According to Hodder’s publishing director Anne McNeill, changing words like ‘luncheon’ to ‘lunch’ or ‘trying’ to ‘annoying’ will allow children to engage with the books without the barrier of strange, old-fashioned words. Yet where does one draw a line? What about Dickens or Shakespeare? As the Guardian’s Lucy Mangan pointed out, it was precisely when she came across strange words as a child that she was forced to pause, reflect and - after further enquiry - move on with a renewed understanding and wider vocabulary. McNeill hasn’t been fazed by the criticisms, however. Texts are continually being updated and revised in order to win new audiences, she has argued, and the older unrevised versions of Blyton would still be available.
Messing about with Blyton’s books is nothing new. Her work has been censored and bowdlerised many times before – and previously liberals have often been the loudest supporters of such tinkering.
In fact, the censoring of Blyton began as early as the 1930s with the decision of BBC producers and executives to keep her off the airwaves. The reason was simple: her work was deemed second-rate. While in the process of relaxing the ban in 1954, Jean Sutcliffe, head of the BBC’s schools broadcasting department, expressed the widely held disdain: ‘No writer of real merit could possibly go on believing that this mediocre material is of the highest quality and turn it out in such incredible quantities. Her capacity to do so amounts to genius and it is here that she has beaten everyone to a standstill. Anyone else would have died of boredom long ago.’
During the 1950s, the BBC was not alone in its Blyton ban; several libraries refused to stock the author’s work because it lacked literary merit. The literary world and the chattering classes recoiled from Blyton’s prewar moral certainty and turned their noses up at a middle-class teacher who was raised above a shop in London’s East Dulwich and churned out popular children’s books like whipping cream from a spray can.
By the 1960s and 1970s, Blyton’s work remained the object of censorship, but the literary dismissal of Blyton’s books had been replaced by concerns that it was ‘sexist’ and ‘classist’. As the British Library put it, ‘publishers began demanding that Blyton change her characters to fit the multicultural society that Britain boasted. Libraries removed her work from their shelves for her “political incorrectness” and alleged racism, classism and sexism. Some critics believed that her work was harmful to young readers.’ By the 1980s, her work had returned to library shelves, but it had not done so unaltered. For example, the Golliwogs’ names in her Golliwogs series were changed to Wiggie, Waggie and Wollie.
All of which seems a world away from my own memories of reading Blyton. Each Christmas or birthday, I would look forward to immersing myself in one of her novels, from The Enchanted Wood to The Five Findouters. It was not just Blyton who enthalled me as a child; Swallows and Amazons, Biggles, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew also had a hold over me. But the authors of these books were never vilified to the extent that Blyton has been.
Yet Blyton’s books were easy to read and fun. They were full of adventure involving intrepid children doing things without adult help. I pretended to believe in fairies, learnt to be a good sport at school, never to be a sneak and modelled myself on the Famous Five’s celebrated tomboy, George. ‘I’m George. I hate being a girl, I won’t be. I hate doing the things that girls do.’ The language was enchanting, too. I relished picnics with tomatoes and tinned sardines, strawberry ices and lashings of ginger beer. I remember first coming across the word ‘burn’, as in little stream or brook, in The Children of Kidillen when two English evacuee children visit their Scottish cousins for the first time.
What Blyton’s critics are unable to grasp is that children are much more resilient, imaginative and inventive than they think. Living under Apartheid in South Africa in the 1960s, the racism in Blyton’s work that caused such a stir in England and Australia and the US made no impression on me. In The Children of Kidillen, for instance, there is a dog called ‘Nigger’ but what I remember thinking about was how words like ‘burn’, ‘heather’ and ‘tam o’ shanter’ were as unfamiliar and strangely exciting to me as they were to the fictional English cousins visiting Scotland.
In Hodder’s view, Blyton’s words put children off because they do not relate to their own lives. Yet when have such words ever been immediately recognisable to young minds? In fact, it was the very strangeness of the words which was always so stimulating. What underpins the decision to revise and update Blyton is not the fact that children find the unusual words too difficult; it’s that educationalists and other experts underestimate not just children’s capacity to learn but also adults’ capacity to educate them. As a result, the difficult words, the unusual vocabulary, must be made familiar. An opportunity to learn is wasted. Such is the tyranny of relevance.
In 2008, best-selling author and former children’s laureate Anne Fine suggested that Blyton’s books – their themes and, yes, their words – were of their time. Moreover, the fact that Blyton was voted ‘Britain’s best-loved author’ in 2008 attests not to our infantilism but to something children enjoy in her novels: ‘When she was voted the nation’s favourite it was not a reflection of arrested development: we don’t carry on reading her forever. It simply represents a shared national memory of happy, uncomplicated reading, a collective appreciation of adventurous children.’
A year later, at the event ‘Compelling Novels, Vulnerable Children’, Fine bemoaned the bleak realism of today’s children’s literature, replete with care homes and divorced parents: ‘I can’t see how we roll back from this without returning to the sort of fiction that is no longer credible – books with a Blyton-ish view of things.’*
A Blyton-ish view of the world would do no harm. In fact, the go-getting, crime-solving, adventure-seeking children portrayed in Blyton’s books – and so admired by millions of her readers, past and present - could cope with a lot more than a few strange words.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
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