James Randi invented the term "unsinkable rubber ducks" to refer to beliefs held by the superstitious and religious, which they were unable and unwilling to give up no matter the evidence. No matter how many times you try to sink them, they keep bobbing back up to the surface.
It's a felicitous turn of phrase, given the relationship between ducks, canards and decoys. And I like to think it could refer just as well to elements of spin and propaganda which, no matter how obviously false or easily rebutted, keep resurfacing.
The decoy is a symptom, a distraction, and a warning. Take the example of Lyndie England, a woman who joined the US armed forces only to end up in an American prison, in Baghdad, torturing Iraqi men and visibly enjoying it. Having helped mask the hypertrophied masculinism and women-hating of American militarism
, she participated fully in it. Take Laura Bush, who exhorted war on benighted Afghanistan, ostensibly to free the women from the Vice and Virtue squads. Or consider Hillary Clinton, so often referred to as a "feminist" that some people actually believe it, regardless of her record.
The sexual decoy has a thousand and one uses, but one of its recurring uses is in the politics of triangulation. Neoliberals alighted on the formula some time ago. If you want to implement policies attacking black people, see if you can find a black politician to take responsibility for it, and sell it as black empowerment. If you want to implement policies attacking women, find a female politician to take the flak, and sell it as feminism.
For example, one of Labour's former acting leader Harriet Harman's first jobs in government was to cut benefits for single mothers. Her job was to deflect criticism, as a woman, for a gratuitous, disgusting attack on women. Note that such policies are often articulated and defended in terms of some specious notion of female empowerment. When Tony Blair, at the peak of his power, was planning further cuts to benefits specifically enjoyed by women, it was justified as feminism
. Likewise, when Harriet Harman as acting leader of the Labour Party refused to oppose Tory welfare cuts which disproportionately harm women, 48 backbenchers rebelled. The Guardian published an article seriously inquiring whether such a rebellion would have happened to a male leader
, suggesting both a dismally tokenistic appreciation of feminist politics, and a memory shorter than a goldfish.
Now, with Corbyn's victory in the Labour leadership election, and the appointment of the hard-left socialist John McDonnell to the role of shadow chancellor, the situation has in some ways been reversed. Labour now seems set to adopt policies that aren't viciously woman-hating. Corbyn's policy document, 'Working With Women'
, drafted by the left-wing Kate Osamor MP, includes a range of measures such as universal free childcare, reversing cuts to the social wage, anti-sexist education in schools, fully funded services for victims of domestic violence, and forcing companies to publish equal pay audits. Also included in this agenda was a commitment to fifty percent representation for women in the shadow cabinet (already exceeded, making Corbyn's shadow cabinet the first to achieve majority women representation
), and pushing toward fifty percent representation for women among Labour MPs. This is not a radical attack on patriarchy, but it is a vast improvement
on the "pink bus + welfare cuts" policy practiced by his predecessor. And that is why Corbyn overwhelmingly won the female vote, with 61% of women voters saying they would vote for him.
However, one of the sub-threads of the anti-Corbyn campaign has always been an attempt to mobilise some form of ripped off anti-oppression politics, from Suzanne Moore's pathetic, opportunistic invocation of the term "brocialism"
to attack enemies to her left to the New Statesman's article headlined 'Labour chooses white man as leader
'. And now look at this
. Cathy Newman, whose journalistic career ought to be in tatters after she fabricated an incident of sexist exclusion
at a mosque, also charges the Corbynites with "brocialism". It is argued that the traditionally top cabinet jobs went to men, shadow foreign secretary and shadow home secretary being by convention - not by dint of pay, perks, or power as far as I can tell - more important than shadow health secretary, or shadow education secretary.
This is simply an underwhelming line of attack. Even if Corbyn's team hadn't declared their intention to refuse that conventional hierarchy, what does the critique amount to? Corbyn's leadership is more gender-egalitarian on all fronts than previous Labour leaderships, and should absolutely aspire to promote women to the highest positions - including shadow chancellor, which has scandalously never been held by a woman. Not particularly damning, is it? Just as there are those who blame "identity politics" for these cheap attack jobs, some on the left are going to get hung up on the term "brocialism" - one of those clumsily snarky social media neologisms, referring to male socialists who don't prioritise gender politics - persuading themselves that it is somehow pre-structured in favour of such appropriations. I seriously doubt it, and I decline to worry about it. The key issue here is that in this context it is an appropriation and a slur.
If, on supposedly feminist grounds of supporting female leadership, you have supported Yvette Cooper for leader, knowing her austerian policies will hurt women, then you have no higher ground from which to berate Corbyn's gender politics. The invocation of gender there is every bit as superficial as Moore's ersatz invocation of class politics while pandering to a far right violent street gang
(and indeed, note in the same article the pseudo-feminist apologia for a bunch of big bovver boys in big boots kicking Muslim heads in). It is a decoy. By the same token, if you are so opportunistic in your use of feminist thematics that you will fake an incident at a mosque in order to incite racist outrage and bolster your media career, you have no higher ground from which to berate Corbyn's gender politics. Once again, it is a decoy. At best, concern trolling. These people have nothing
to teach the left about gender politics.
No doubt, and soon, we will hear the feminist case for keeping Trident, the feminist case for tougher immigration controls (I think Joan Smith has already been working on that), the feminist case for Anschluss, and at long last the feminist case for nutting people right in the fucking face, square go. Because apparently there is no atrocity that you can't justify by sticking the label feminist in front of it, and brazening it out.