Politicians’ actions speak louder then words on a 'feminist' T-shirt

But who now cares if you walk the walk, so long as you talk the talk?

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 31 October 2014 18:28

How much does a righteous gesture cost? For Nick Clegg, Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband, pictured this week proudly wearing their “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts: absolutely nothing.

Heart-on-sleeve – or rather, brag-on-chest – sloganeering shores up the base, preaches to the choir and has zero effect on unbelievers. By the way, this T-shirt campaign stems not from some upsurge in grassroots action for gender equality but the promotion of a special issue by the fashion and lifestyle title Elle. Although the garment comes from the Fawcett Society, its revival forms part of a magazine marketing strategy.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Harman chided David Cameron for refusing to play along. With overweening self-importance, the mag’s staff deemed the PM’s disinclination to join its autumn PR drive – sorry, fearless campaign for justice – “very disappointing for Team ELLE”. Must do better, Dave. Although licensed in the US and UK, the Elle brand belongs to the French Lagardère group, a tentacular media conglomerate whose interests until last year also extended to armaments, warplanes and civil aircraft via the EADS aerospace combine. Lagardère has now sold its stake in EADS for €2.3 bn. Until April 2013, though, that motto might have run: “This is what a circulation-boosting stunt by a missile-manufacturing multinational looks like.”

Low-cost, minimal-effort, risk-free commitment to some bland good cause sucks politicians and celebrities into a fuzzy vortex of self-congratulation. At most, Harman’s sporting of the slogan at PMQ might have incurred a Speaker’s reprimand – not even a slap on the wrist but a bat-squeak of demurral. Harman wore no such proclamations when, as minister for women and equality between 2007 and 2010, she helped to run a government that presided over the amply documented mistreatment of women asylum-seekers and their children at the Yarl’s Wood detention (or “immigrant removal”) centre in Bedfordshire.

Over a decade of Labour rule, Yarl’s Wood became a sink of powerless families’ suffering: the site of hunger strikes, unrest, distress and humiliation – from the handcuffing of mothers and routine verbal abuse to the transport of frightened kids in caged vans – chronicled in a 2009 report by the then children’s commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green. The facility was (and is) run on behalf of the Home Office by Serco, the outsourcing giant now under criminal investigation by the Serious Fraud Office after it charged the taxpayer for tagging thousands of phantom offenders. During the period of sustained misogynistic abuse at Yarl’s Wood, did the minister for women – that Joan of Arc of the Commons chamber – wear any article of clothing to protest?

Meanwhile, Nick Clegg, who on entering government pledged to close Yarl’s Wood in its entirety, has done as much to achieve that goal as Barack Obama has to shut down Guantanamo Bay. Introducing an investigation into the plight of its inmates (85 per cent of whom report either rape or torture in their countries of origin) by the group Women for Refugee Women, Philippe Sands QC notes that “the United Kingdom is one of the few European countries that puts no time limit on such detention”. The Elle T-shirt costs £45 from Whistles. My suggestion? Give that sum to Women for Refugee Women instead (refugeewomen.com).

Among women recently ejected from Britain via this purgatory was Isabella Acevedo. She is the Colombian cleaner employed illegally for seven years by Clegg’s colleague in government, Mark Harper: formerly the minister for immigration and now – after the briefest spell in the sin bin – responsible for disabled people. The circumstances of this refugee mother’s removal – at dead of night with no prior warning, two weeks after her arrest at her daughter’s wedding – were utterly totalitarian. On 21 July 2010, the deputy PM vowed to shut Yarl’s Wood, this headquarters of what he had formerly dubbed “state cruelty”, for good. It still operates. So (for another six months only) does he. A more suitable T-shirt proclamation for Clegg might run: “This is what a failure looks like.”

We live, however, in the age of spectacular virtue. Who cares if you walk the walk so long as you talk the talk – or merely print the platitude? Don that slogan-stamped shirt. Shove your head under a pail of near-freezing water for the ice bucket challenge. (How many of those who watch publicity-crazed celebs take that chilled shower know that the ritual began in order to raise funds for research into the neurodegenerative condition ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis?) Elsewhere, The Secret Millionaire series – that pinnacle of paradox – shows us rich folk indulging in undercover philanthropy only to trumpet their hidden benevolence on prime-time TV. At the moment, every MP spotted in a studio and every broadcaster flourishes the obligatory poppy – for public figures, no longer a voluntary act of remembrance but a compulsory, and thus devalued, salute. Soon, the BBC’s Children in Need appeal will once more expose us to a pageant of stars both bright and dim, each avid to show off a conspicuous dedication to (thank you, Harry Enfield) charidee.

Declamatory virtue has its implicit rules. The cause espoused must lie squarely in the mainstream: no minority hobby horses or fringe enthusiasms, please. By and large, major stars – or big-party politicians – will make a brave stand only for established common sense. From Aids research and anti-poverty programmes to feminism itself, celebrity do-gooding rides its spotlit chariot over the forgotten corpses of the pioneers. Very seldom does it stick its neck out beyond the middle ground. When Labour front-benchers nip down to campaign in the Rochester and Strood by-election clad in casualwear informing us that “Immigrants benefit Britain” or “Refugees are human too”, we should begin to take their moral self-advertisement seriously.

Doing good now means feeling good. A philosopher of ethics might reply: so what? Anyone who has ever sat through a charity auction or some other rubber-chicken bash knows that competitive and self-admiring altruism often swells the coffers of deserving causes. After all, £100 donated out of vanity, embarrassment or shame buys as much food for the hungry or medicine for the sick as £100 given from the depths of a truly compassionate heart.

To some thinkers, in the “consequentialist” tradition of G E Moore, beneficial acts trump whatever selfish or mixed motives might have led to them. Swollen egos and guilty consciences have saved, or enriched, countless lives. Alfred Nobel’s dynamite-derived fortune has, since 1896, served as an explosive force for good. Yet it was wounded self-regard – after he had seen a mistakenly printed premature obituary coldly announcing, “The merchant of death is dead” – that drove him to make the bequest that founded the Nobel prizes.

All the same, stealth kindness, courage or largesse tend to impress more than any parade of ostentatious virtue. A number of genuinely secret millionaires do go around doing good under the radar, but they value their anonymity and – this side of the grave – you won’t hear much about them. On a smaller scale, discreet nobility may step out of the shadows when a death and a will reveal gifts to worthy causes made out of a modest fixed income. In the face of such humbling generosity, limelight-grabbing avowals and endorsements merely sound crass.

In any case, Clegg and his magazine-puffing chums chose a bad week for their grandstanding. On Tuesday, Sir Nicholas Winton received the Order of the Golden Lion – the nation’s highest honour – from the Czech President in Prague. Not only did Sir Nicolas save 669 children, mostly Jewish, from the Nazis after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia early in 1939. He also kept shtum about his extraordinary heroism, which came to light only when his wife found a scrapbook almost half a century afterwards. That, some might think, is taking modesty a shade too far. Still, the epic self-effacement of the “British Schindler” might make our T-shirt revolutionaries pause to reflect on what they do as well as what they wear.

However impeccable its sentiment, the screen-printed message always brings bad news. It tells of orthodoxy, conformity, of the urge to be herded into some unanimous flock. I take my text from The Life of Brian. “You’re all individuals!” the prophet Brian instructs the bovine assenting throng. “I’m not,” pipes up a troublemaker at the back. If you need a swankier allusion, try Milan Kundera’s concept of the “Grand March”, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In that novel, the Czech writer warns against the sacrifice of doubt and choice that comes about when progressive people of goodwill put on the same smiley face and tramp in lockstep towards a brave new world.

The final word, however, should go to one of the greatest of all British feminists. At the end of Middlemarch, in a passage imprinted on the memories of many readers, George Eliot admits that the quiet devotion to others’ betterment shown by her heroine Dorothea will never equal the noisy moral splash made by saints and martyrs. No matter: take off those T-shirts, and kick the ice bucket, “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”.

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