Feminist Ambiguity

Last time out, in my brief discussion of modern feminism, I mentioned and provided an example of the ambiguity that feminists today face in their pursuit of… whatever version of equalist utopia their idea of feminism preaches. However, the battlegrounds across which this confusion & argument take place are many and varied and I thought I might explore a few more of them in this post. To make a point, essentially.

I begin with a joke: a feminist is standing near the front of a crowded bus next to a man, who is sitting down. At the next stop, a woman boards and the man stands up, offering her his seat. Muttering “You’re living in a bygone age” and clearly disgusted, the feminist grabs his shoulder and forces him back into his seat. At the next stop, another woman boards and again the man stands up. “We aren’t all damsels in distress” snarls the feminist, pushing him back down. At the third stop, a third female passenger boards; for the third time our man attempts to stand up, and for the first time the feminist standing next to him pushes him back down. This time, however, it’s the man who addresses her first; “Would you please stop doing that, you’ve made me miss three stops already””

Yeah, I’m not great at telling jokes.

Anyway, in spite of its dubious quality, the joke illustrates one such feminist battleground quite well; that of societal gender roles. The above situation, of whether one should offer a woman a seat when one is available in preference, is an extreme example- most people would consider it simple good manners, or a harmless quirk of society at best. In fact, many bemoan the ‘loss’ of such customs, claiming that chivalry is dead. However, there are some feminists, such as our example above, who consider chivalry as a concept an inherently patriarchal one; the chivalric (which might be better translated as ‘knightly’) originated during the medieval period and held that women should be protected and treated with respect. So far, so feminist; however, the essential reason that such parts of the chivalric code exist is because women of the time had next to zero power and thus no ability to fight back if they were treated dishonourably. As such, some feminists argue that the concept is outdated and patriarchal, subconsciously implying that modern women, like their medieval counterparts, are unable to fend for themselves in our modern age. So which is it; a harmless, even pro-feminist, societal institution, or a relic of an institutionally misogynist age?

Such arguments are not just levelled at seats on a bus; no less a figure than home secretary Theresa May weighed in on such an argument last year, saying that it was wrong to introduce quotas for the number of women on the boards of major companies as it devalued them, implying they weren’t good enough to be there on their own merit (the counter-argument being, of course, that women are criminally under-represented in such instutions and the forced introduction of women into their highest echelons might go some way to removing institutionalised misogyny in such companies). Hers isn’t the only argument one can make to back her point; others argue against such pro-female initiatives as being anti-male, preventing men from being elected to boards on their own merit.

You might recognise this argument as being, in this case, exceedingly stupid- it is comparatively very easy for a man to get onto such a board on their own merit. Although the idea of misandry (the oppression of and hateful behaviour towards men by women) is occasionally worth mentioning in certain circumstances, it has become a byword for what angry, anti-feminist men say to cover their frankly sexist attitudes. The issue is that whilst misandry is certainly a thing, it is very, very seldom a major issue when compared to the vast mountain of inequality built up by 5,000 years of institutional sexism and patriachal, misogynist attitudes. I mention this solely as a warning to any guys reading this- before accusing anyone of misandry, either deliberately or indirectly, think very, very carefully about it and make sure every other possible reason could be eliminate. The chance of misandry being the problem is very slim. Just something to bear in mind. Anyway…

Another set of issues and objections begin to enter the equation when we move beyond the traditional gender roles women aren’t meant to fill and move onto those that they are; those of cook, housewife, child-raiser and so on. It is generally agreed by most of a feminist inclination that women should not be forced into fulfilling these roles; that they should be free to be their own person and not forced to simply do the chores men don’t want to. However, this begs the question: is the structure of the ‘traditional’ family unit inherently wrong? Some would argue yes; that be being a stay-at-home mum & housewife, a woman is, intentionally or otherwise, contributing to the idea that this way of doing things is the only acceptable norm, reinforcing the patriarchy. Others, however, argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a woman staying home, looking after her children, cooking meals and so on; if she wants to do things that way, that is absolutely her choice to make. Just as she should not be forced into the role, so she should not be forced out of it; maybe she wants to spend more time with her kids, maybe cooking has always been her thing. Some may suggest that cooking is only ‘a woman’s thing’ because of these institutionalised patriarchal norms, but then we realise that we can apply the exact same argument to this situation; something being a ‘woman’s activity’ doesn’t necessarily mean a woman can’t enjoy it with all the enthusiasm that a man (if so inclined) might. When we start considering the practicalities of a man fulfilling the ‘house-husband’ role, entering a genuinely female-dominated environment and capable of legitimately using misandry as an argument in some cases, the whole business finally spirals into a vortex of confusion and trying to keep track of the arguments flying all over the place becomes practically impossible.

There are countless other examples of this sort of thing, many of which are far less easy to determine the “right” answer to than the examples covered here. Does the far greater interest in male compared to female professional sport mean sports fans are straight up sexist? Is it the fault of any particular videogame featuring them that such a large proportion of gaming protagonists are straight white 30-something men? I could go on, but I feel my aim has been achieved; to reinforce my point about the ambiguity and politics inherent in modern feminism. Unfortunately, this doesn’t leave me with a natural conclusion, so… be nice to women, I guess? No wait, that might be considered over-chivalrous…

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Top 5 ‘Upper Class Idiots In Charge’

In his excellent book ‘An Utterly Impartial History Of Britain’ (which I use as partial source material for far too many of my history-based posts), author John O’Farrell offers us the subtitle of ‘Two Thousand Years of Upper Class Idiots In Charge’. As a description of Britain’s, and indeed most of the world’s, political history, it is an almost depressingly accurate sobriquet; only in the last hundred years (and some would argue not even nowadays given who currently sits in No. 10) have ‘commoners’ been given the chance to rule our little island, and not since King William III has any effective power rested with anyone other than the hereditary monarch. However, just as with elected Prime Ministers, some of these upper-class idiots have done a significantly better job than others at running our country, and since I love a good arbitrary list as much as anyone I thought I would dedicate this post to detailing my Top 5 English* Monarchs. Oh, and a quick apology; this is going to be a long one.

*Because I am not all that familiar with pre-Union Scottish, Irish or Welsh history, my list will be drawn from the line representing the English monarchy that began in 927 and later became the Kingdom of Great Britain under the ‘rule’ of Queen Anne. Technically, therefore, some of the monarchs considered will be British, rather than English, but to dub this a list of British monarchs would a) be doing the other kings of this isle who do not form part of this line and who I am unfamiliar with a severe disservice and b) make the job of choosing just five one hell of a lot more complicated. OK, let’s begin, in chronological order:

Athelstan (927-39)

Despite strong challenges from his grandfather, Alfred the Great (who was unfortunately ruler of Wessex, rather than England) and the Viking king Canute, Athelstan takes his rightful place here as the greatest pre-Norman king of England. This is partly thanks to the fact he created the title; in 924 he inherited the Kingdom of Wessex and immediately embarked on a campaign to throw the Vikings out of the Danegeld (the land north of the old Roman road Watling street) that had been allocated to them by Alfred. It should be mentioned that this was less a ‘liberation’ than a land grab, but nonetheless he was one of the most staggeringly effective military leaders in British history; he conquered all the land between the Midlands and Northumberland (including the historic Viking capital of York), defeated the King of Scotland, marched back down south to take control of Wales (hence why the ‘English’ throne has always incorporated Wales) and the inconveniently titled West Wales (Devon & Cornwall), and finally defeated a coalition army of pretty much all of the above to become recognised as the undisputed king of all England (and a few other bits besides) in 937. Little is known about his domestic policy (this was the Dark Ages after all), but he nonetheless deserves credit as being a truly ‘great’ leader in the classical sense of the word.

Henry II (1154-89)

Henry II was not really an English monarch; he was a Frenchman, head of the Angevin Empire that stretched from Scotland to the southern tip of France, incorporating France’s entire Atlantic coast and control of both sides of the English channel. This owed much to his cleverly strategic marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, de facto ruler of much of western France at the time, and it is a tribute to his sheer energy that he was able to manage all of it with such aplomb. So impatient was he to get on with the day’s work, he reportedly chose his chaplain based on who could get through mass the fastest.

During his reign, Henry made some quite staggering achievements, controlling his barons (who would later force his son John to sign the Magna Carta) to great effect, reconquering the land won back by the Scots and Welsh from his predecessors’ rule, revolutionising the justice system with the creation of the offices of sherriff and coroner and generally micromanaging the realm to within an inch of its life with great effect, both military and economic. In fact, he only made two notable mistakes during his entire reign; the first was an invasion of Ireland that set the two countries on course for an 800 year long dispute that would cost thousands of lives, and the second concerned his attempts to bring the ultra-powerful Church under his control. When his hand-picked Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket, began to stop toeing the Henry line, the infamously hot tempered king shouted an order that was misinterpreted by a group of his knights to walk into Canterbury Cathedral (holy ground, upon which blood was not allowed to be spilt) and bash Becket’s brains out then and there. The Church milked the scandal for all it was worth, making Thomas a saint and vilifying Henry to the highest degree. Even today, many only know Henry because of the ‘Becket incident’.

Edward III (1327-77)

During his half-century reign, Edward III made a major impression in just about every part of England and English life at the time. Whilst his father Edward II had lost to the Scots at Bannockburn, enabling them to establish independence, Edward III was quick to march back over the border and quickly won victory over Robert the Bruce’s son David II at Halidon Hill, forcing him into exile and replacing him with the more compliant Edward Balliol, who promptly gave back all the land Robert had taken from the English. This was, in fact, a preferable situation to having the Scots under English rule, where they would simply rebel, as the subsequent half-century of political muddling over Scotland’s future prevented it from mounting a threat to English lands. With Scotland out of the way, Edward made the slightly more dubious decision to begin the Hundred Years War (had he known that was going to be the title, he might have considered against it) to enforce his claim to the French throne, and in doing so won stunning victories at the Battles of Sluys (at sea, in which the court jester was forced to break the humiliating news to the French king by saying how the cowardly English didn’t dare jump into the sea like the brave Frenchmen) and Crecy (on land, in which his bowmen and infantry soundly defeated the French cavalry, shattering the supposed invincibility of the mounted knight and beginning the slow demise of the knight in warfare). Had the Black Death not had the discourtesy to come along in the middle and wipe out nearly 40% of the European population (in turn utterly changing the balance of power in Europe), the Hundred Years’ War might have all but ended there with England’s victory over the French (although that would require the war to get a new name). Especially since he’d captured the French king.

But it was not just on the battlefield that Edward had success. He founded the Order of the Garter, still the highest office in the British Honours system, to maintain the chivalric code a little longer, cleared corrupt officials out of government to create an efficient, profitable taxation system and government, strengthened the legal system and Parliament (making the House of Commons and Lords separate entities) whilst increasing the monarchy’s importance and authority, and fostered a sense of Englishness in his country for the first time; St George, for example, became England’s patron saint. It is worth noting in relation to this latter point that this was also the era of Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales would become among the most significant works in history by establishing English as a written language for the first time.

Henry VII (1485-1509)

As every schoolboy knows, Henry VII became the first Tudor king after victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, but that was to be the last significant military action during his reign (and indeed, the last time an English king won their throne in battle). Unlike many of his ‘great’ predecessors, Henry gains a place on this list by being one of the most effective, if unglamorous, of all British rulers on the domestic front. Soon after Bosworth Field, the Lancastrian Henry married the Yorkist Eleanor of York, both bolstering his claim to the throne and uniting the two houses that had fought so viciously during the wars of the roses and ensuring his heir would be regarded as legitimate by all. He then, somehow, managed to persuade all the barons to obey his edict that banned their keeping the private militias that had so helped him on his rise to power, and then started milking off most of the resulting cash generated as part of his highly effective taxation system. That he managed to stay on the throne of a country full of immensely powerful barons who he was then able to gain control over and squeeze money out of based on a rather weak claim without any significant bloodshed is as good a testament as any to his interpersonal and management skills, and he spent the next two decades amassing the biggest fortune of any English king to date (in spite of his decision not to grant Columbus a royal charter to sail across the Atlantic, a deal that would net Spain all the gold of South America). It’s a shame his son Henry VIII would go on to spend nearly all of it on rather wasteful ventures, but that was hardly his fault

Elizabeth II

OK, a bold call I’ll admit, but hear me out. The English monarchy can be argued to have passed through three stages in its long and illustrious history; the pre-feudal phase, when a mixture of an elective council, assassins and armies were the ultimate decider of who was on the throne, the medieval phase (post William the Conqueror) in which Britain was a fairly typical feudal monarchy run by its hereditary monarch, and the Parliamentary phase (post William III) where the monarchy became more and more of a ceremonial role with all real power coming from Parliament (some would date this period from Charles I and Oliver Cromwell’s rule, but there was significant power jostling between monarch and Parliament for the rest of the Stuart era until the monarchs finally assumed a subservient position). Of  my previous four picks, three has been from the medieval phase and one from the pre-feudal, but the very nature of the monarchy during this third period means that ‘greatness’ doesn’t really spring up in the traditional sense. However, I felt this period needed some representation, and our current Queen has adapted to the role of a monarch during this period better than any other, fulfilling her symbolic role whilst not arrogantly attempting to pretend to power. Not only that, but she has had to do so during what must be the most tumultuous period of change experienced in any monarch’s reign, and has coped with this change magnificently. Whether you think that her role or the concept of a monarch should exist at all, it is hard to deny that she has done her job. Which is more that can be said for most of her ancestors.

The Third Crusade Onward

When we think of the crusades, the subject of my previous two posts and this concluding one, it is primarily the third that springs to mind. This is partly because it was one of the biggest,with the three great European powers of England, France and the Holy Roman Empire uniting for the cause against the might of Islam behind Saladin, and also one of the simplest to understand; one lot of Christians fight one lot of Muslims and whoever ends up with the Holy Land is the winner. However, the main reason it is so well remembered is thanks to Richard I, also known as Coeur-de-Lion or Richard the Lionheart. Richard is a strange figure in English history; a Frenchman who never learnt English, visited England three times in his life, was a decidedly useless ruler who sold and taxed to death everything in England he could in order to pay for his wars, then completely bankrupted it by forcing his subjects to levy the single largest ransom in history to pay for his release and who is STILL somehow considered this great hero of English history. This is almost entirely due to the enduring tale of Robin Hood, whose struggle against Richard’s even more incompetent brother John (who acted as interim ruler during Richard’s absence), and the fact that Richard did some good PR work by forgiving John immediately after returning, before going off to war again, getting himself killed besieging a castle in France and forcing the country to put up with John as an actual king.

Richard was, however, a brilliant warrior and military strategist (which is presumably why he spent his entire life at war), and nowhere was this as well-illustrated as when he went crusading. Even when the vast armies of the Holy Roman Empire almost all went home after Emperor Frederick’s death, he was able to conquer the great walled city of Acre in little over a month. The city would go on to become the new home of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, previously destroyed by Saladin. The subsequent arguments over the city would result in all the remaining German forces and all but 10,000 of the French leaving the Holy Land, which didn’t prevent Richard from routing Saladin’s army when it ambushed his in the Battle of Arsuf, boosting the morale of his men. He captured several more cities, only being forced back from taking the severely weakened Jerusalem due to bad weather, lost the city of Jaffa to a large Muslim force and then defeated them too with a small force of just 2,000; no mean feat given Saladin’s known prowess as a general. Through Richard’s work, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was refounded, albeit without much of its original land or the titular city that Richard, for various reasons, neglected to capture.

In many ways, it’s a shame he was so successful and that his name, and that of his crusade, has lived on so long; Richard was by all accounts an all round terrible person, sanctioning the massacre of civilians at Acre and the mass beheading of prisoners in full view of the Muslim army after the battle because negotiations were taking too long to name but two things. By contrast, even European history has remembered Saladin as more than an ‘infidel’, but as a man of honour and chivalry; when his army retook Jaffa, he reportedly ordered the Christians to take shelter as he attempted to regain control of an army maddened with rage and with thoughts of revenge for Acre in its collective mind. He even sent exotic fruits and healers to his enemy when Richard was nearly dying of fever. He was also known to be supportive of scientific and academic advances in his realm, and died poor after distributing most of his money among his subjects. Richard, by all accounts, respected the hell out of his adversary for precisely these reasons, but couldn’t manage to be as good a man as him.

The Christian attempt to take back the Holy Land would never come close to Richard’s successes. The Fourth Crusade, declared by Pope Innocent III just 10 years later ended in disaster when the crusaders couldn’t find a way to pay the Venetian shipbuilders who built the largest fleet since Roman times to accommodate them, with the crusade sacking the Christian cities of Zara and Constantinople before being excommunicated by the pope and utterly falling to pieces, in the process signalling the end of the once-great Byzantine empire. Innocent III declared the last official papally-sanctioned crusade for the Holy Land 15 years after that, whereupon the crusading army was forced to surrender to Muslim forces in Egypt, No. 6 was little more than a series of non-papally sanctioned political manoeuvres by the excommunicated Emperor Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire that did nonetheless give the Kingdom of Jerusalem actual control of Jerusalem for 20 years, but then Muslim forces invaded and took it back. Three subsequent crusades attempted to win it back, but none made it beyond North Africa. In 1291, the once-prosperous Kingdom of Jerusalem set up by Richard fell with the recapture of Acre by the Muslims, and the crusading dream finally ended. Not that anyone told the King of Jerusalem; officially the Kingdom merely moved to Cyprus and the title has lived on for many centuries. Nowadays many people, including King Juan Carlos I of Spain, have a claim on the title.

In many ways, the crusades were a reflection of the age, and particularly the role of the Church within it. The role of the Pope has (reportedly) existed for 2000 years, but it was during the medieval age, between the Norman Conquest and the Renaissance, that it really became a political force. Once just a voice on religious matters, it was during this time that the Christian world embraced religious zealotry; the age where the bishop was the most powerful voice in a community, and was just as much a political leader as the most powerful king or emperor. And, really, this was a direct result of the crusading idea, of the idea that violence in the pursuit of better things was justified, for this gave the church earthly power that it had never previously held. It can be easy to ignore the wills of the Church when all they can physically do to you is waggle a finger and talk about heaven and hell, but when an army marches under a cross, when people are prepared to kill and to die for God, then it becomes one hell of a lot harder to ignore. The Church fully embraced this power, calling crusades not just in the middle east but also for political reasons across Europe (even if not many people went on them), and crusades were even called as late as 1444 in the Balkans. The growing power and influence of the church in this age was perhaps best indicated in the Thomas a Becket incident, when Henry II (in a fit of rage) accidentally ordered the assassination of his archbishop. Henry, one of England’s greatest ever kings, was forced pretty much solely by public pressure to spend vast amounts of money on numerous acts of penance and his reputation has only just begun to recover. Even nowadays, with the role of the church vastly diminished (and to a far lesser extent), this idea of the Christian faith as a political force and even a tool for violence is still very much with us; it provided the moral justification used by the KKK, for example. The story of the crusades is an ugly one, packed to the brim with zealotry, bigotry, hypocrisy and violence on a truly appalling scale; but they are a lot more than just ancient history. The legacy of the crusades will be rattling around our world for many years to come.

*”It is sweet and right to die for your country”

Patriotism is one of humankind’s odder traits, at least on the face of it. For many hundreds of years, dying in a war hundreds of miles away from home defending/stealing for what were, essentially, the business interests and egos of rich men too powerful to even acknowledge your existence was considered the absolute pinnacle of honour, the ultimate way to bridge the gap between this world and the next. This near-universal image of the valiance of dying for your country was heavily damaged by the first world war, near-crushing “the old lie: Dulce Et Decorum Est/Pro Patria Mori*” (to quote Wilfred Owen), but even nowadays soldiers fighting in a dubiously moral war that has killed far more people than the events it was ‘payback’ for are regarded as heroes, their deaths always granted both respect and news coverage (and rightly so). Both the existence and extent of patriotism become increasingly bizarre and prevalent when we look away from the field of conflict; national identity is one of the most hotly argued and defended topics we have, stereotypes and national slurs form the basis for a vast range of insults, and the level of passion and pride in ‘our’ people and teams on the sporting stage is quite staggering to behold (as the recent London 2012 games showed to a truly spectacular degree).

But… why? What’s the point? Why is ‘our’ country any better than everyone else’s, to us at least, just by virtue of us having been born there by chance? Why do we feel such a connection to a certain group of sportspeople, many of whom we might hate as people more than any of their competitors, simply because we share an accent? Why are we patriotic?

The source of the whole business may have its roots in my old friend, the hypothetical neolithic tribe. In such a situation, one so small that everybody knows and constantly interacts with everyone else, then pride in connection with the achievements of one’s tribe is understandable. Every achievement made by your tribe is of direct benefit to you, and is therefore worthy of celebration. Over an extended period of time, during which your tribe may enjoy a run of success, you start to develop a sense of pride that you are achieving so much, and that you are doing better than surrounding others.

This may, at least to a degree, have something to do with why we enjoy successes that are, on the scale of countries, wholly unconnected to us, but nonetheless are done in the name of our extended ‘tribe’. But what it doesn’t explain so well is the whole ‘through thick and thin mentality’- that of supporting your country’s endeavours throughout its failings as well as its successes, of continuing to salvage a vestige of pride even if your country’s name has been dragged through the mud.

We may find a clue to this by, once again, turning our attention to the sporting field, this time on the level of clubs (who, again, receive a level of support and devotion wholly out of proportion to their achievements, and who are a story in their own right). Fans are, obviously, always proud and passionate when their side is doing well- but just as important to be considered a ‘true’ fan is the ability to carry on supporting during the days when you’re bouncing along the bottom of the table praying to avoid relegation. Those who do not, either abandoning their side or switching allegiance to another, are considered akin to traitors, and when the good times return may be ostracized (or at least disrespected) for not having faith. We can apply this same idea to being proud of our country despite its poor behaviour and its failings- for how can we claim to be proud of our great achievements if we do not at least remain loyal to our country throughout its darkest moments?

But to me, the core of the whole business is simply a question of self-respect. Like it or not, our nationality is a huge part of our personal identity, a core segment of our identification and being that cannot be ignored by us, for it certainly will not be by others. We are, to a surprisingly large degree, identified by our country, and if we are to have a degree of pride in ourselves, a sense of our own worth and place, then we must take pride in all facets of our identity- not only that, but a massed front of people prepared to be proud of their nationality in and of itself gives us a reason, or at least part of one, to be proud of. It may be irrational, illogical and largely irrelevant, but taking pride in every pointless achievement made in the name of our nation is a natural part of identifying with and being proud of ourselves, and who we are.

My apologies for the slightly shorter than normal post today, I’ve been feeling a little run down today. I’ll try and make it up next time…