Christina Patterson: Macho government is on the warpath

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The Independent Online

It's hard to think of a Western government more parodically testosterone-fuelled than that of George W Bush. Here he is: the taciturn man of the people, strutting around his ranch in cowboy boots and jeans. Here he is again: the conquering hero, kitted out like Barbie's Ken, hailing his new Jerusalem in Iraq. And here's the 43rd President of the United States: suited, booted and quietly informing the world that he will hunt down and "smoke out" America's enemies - that he will launch, in fact, a war that can never end.

According to Bob Woodward's latest glimpse behind the keyhole of the American administration, the day-to-day realities of life at the White House are even more alarming than these images suggest. In State of Denial, he paints a gripping portrait of a kingdom built from scratch by George H W Bush as a superior hobby for his elder son, one peopled by the super-rich and the super-powerful.

It's a kingdom in which the new President spends his life barking orders like "If you're going to be my guy, you're going to be my guy". It's an all-male kingdom, of course, with the honourable exception of Condi.

Brought in to invent a foreign policy for a man who couldn't name the leaders of India or Pakistan, Rice established a cosy cohort of hawkish neo-cons she nicknamed "the Vulcans", a group that included Paul Wolfowitz and Richard we're-going-to-bomb-you-back-to-the-Stone-Age Armitage. Some women, clearly, are not from Venus. But even she couldn't make Donald Rumsfeld return her calls. Bush's advice, when she expressed her frustration, was to be more "playful".

It would be nice to think that our own government could offer a radically different model to this bellicose kingdom of edicts, whims and public executions. Certainly, nine years ago, when that nice Tony Blair became Prime Minister, it looked possible. Here was a man who could weep over the death of a "people's princess", one who wanted to feed the hungry and heal the sick. In lots of ways, he did both, but he did it in one of the most dictatorial, aggressive and yes, macho, British governments for years.

This was a government in which foul-mouthed, footie-loving aides could instruct an ambassador to "get up the arse of the White House and stay there", one in which one of the few women Secretaries of State could declare tearfully that it was her husband who looked after the finances.

It is surely not by accident that The Thick of It, Armando Ianucci's expletive-ridden satire of New Labour policy making on the hoof, is favourite viewing at Number 10.

While much of the world makes great strides in enabling women to rise to senior levels - education, of course, but also the formerly all-male bastions of medicine and the law - others appear to have stalled. The number of women in Britain's boardrooms has, according to reports this week, fallen sharply. At the end of the last financial year, there were only 12 women holding executive director roles at FTSE 100 companies, compared with 20 the year before.

The situation in the media is not much better. There are currently only two women editors of national newspapers - and a quick glance around the average newsroom will confirm that the job of hard-nosed newshound is still largely one for the boys.

You can talk about teamwork and pay lip service to consultation - in much the way that David Cameron extols the importance of sunshine - but the realities of management in politics, media and business, three of the most powerful areas of our culture, are often more like a court than a cabinet. Just think of Alan Sugar - or journalist-turned-apparatchik Alastair Campbell. Cultures change from the top. Ours our changing far too slowly. Bombed back to the Stone Age? Perhaps we'll get there on our own.

Shopping malls are the new hell

In the old days, the solution was simple. The Bible had harsh words for those who emptied too many wine-skins or coveted their neighbour's wife. The words "thou shalt not" generally covered it, but help was also at hand in the form of vivid depictions of hell by the likes of Dante or Bosch.

What a relief, then, to know that none of it's our fault. Where Michael Douglas paved the way, with his famous "sex addiction", we're all following. According to new studies, there are now as many male shopaholics as female, while BlackBerry addiction is fast turning into an epidemic, with Denise Van Outen and Jemma Kidd glued to their gizmos. The answer, according to one study, is to sue your employer. The wages of sin, it seems, can be high.

* It is the season of mellow mists and fruitfulness, of TV costume dramas and the party political conference. It is also the season of Black History Month, that annual jamboree of performances, exhibitions and workshops organised to "heighten awareness" of black contributions to history, art and culture. This year's events include AfriKarib Dance Fusion in Peckham High Street and Star Reads, a celebrity-led campaign to encourage reading.

Last year, a black friend of mine took his children to an event at Sutton House in Hackney. In this largely black area, the audience was, he said, nearly all white and middle-class - parents sporting African robes and head-wraps and children with elaborate beads and braids.

He was tickled pink, or something like it. It is, clearly, no longer just the patois-spouting, buttock-baring kids who are keen to "get down in da hood". The joys of multiculturalism! More challenges, perhaps, but also more mirth.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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