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On #MeToo and my article on a crisis in masculinity: an excellent critique I received last night.

I received an excellent critique last night, following the publication of my piece about Harvey Weinstein and a crisis in masculinity. The message arrived on Facebook, and I have copied and pasted it below with the author’s permission.

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Hey Musa, long time, I hope Berlin is treating you well, and and sorry to get in touch with you in this way and about this thing, but… the Me Too stuff has me furious for a ton of different reasons, and I kinda felt like since you have a significant platform through your blog, this might have been one of those moments where you could’ve offered that to a woman. I’m sure it wasn’t your intention, but I’ve seen a dozen ‘woke’ men get clap clap clap today and it’s complicated because I’m not saying ‘don’t demonstrate alliance’, but I’m not sure getting accolades, intended or not, is what is needed. I’m having a go at you because you have a larger platform than the rest, but ALL have got more comments/likes/whatever than the women I know who’ve bravely shared experiences of trauma as a result of this bullshit Hollywood engendered meme. Anyway. I hate all of it – seeing the raw hurt from the women, and the tiredness we all feel, and the cheers for the ‘good guys’. So you got picked on. My bad there. Hope life is good, I am glad these conversations are happening. I’m just really pissed off it took mainly rich white normatively beautiful women fingering a rich successful dude to make them happen, and that it’s mainly men who are getting attention as a result. Peace! xxx


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Following my friend’s suggestion, if any women want to share their experiences under the #MeToo hashtag they can do so using my blog at http://www.okwonga.com/. They don’t only have to share their stories, they can share however they are feeling about the hashtag too.

They would be welcome to do so under their own names or anonymously. Anonymity might be an attractive option – there might be women who would really appreciate the catharsis of just typing out some of the trauma and posting it there. Women who can’t speak out for legal reasons or because the situation is ongoing and just want somewhere to flush out some of the pain. As my friend points out, I have a sizeable public platform and it would be good to make it available for women who would like to use it and who might need it.

I have a female administrator, Andrea Scheibler, to whom I am paying a fee, so that women do not have to concede their privacy in order to post on my blog. Please send her a private message on Facebook if you have a story you would like to share.

The only thing I would need is that identifying details of the perpetrators were not revealed (lawsuits, argh) but otherwise I would be more than happy for that.

 

For the middle-class Trump voter, this must be glorious.

As a middle-class Trump voter this must be glorious. You’ve got your regular income from your job and possibly your buy-to-let, and your liberal neighbours and colleagues are going wild with despair or fury. You’re quietly delighted – this is the time of your life, isn’t it? Being, as you are, comfortable enough to sit back and watch the bonfire. It probably feels as Great as the good old days your grandparents talked about. Trump promised this, and he has absolutely delivered.

What has surprised you, though, is how thrilling the sensation has been. The hurt on the face of your fellow worker when Trump aims another cannon at their existence produces a surge of euphoria in you, almost erotic. And Trump is relentless, isn’t he? You knew he’d be this bad, or this good, but you never knew the hits would be so constant, almost daily, and you’re addicted. It’s worse and therefore better than you’d hoped. By the time he’s done, whether that’s months or years from now, he’ll have shattered the happiness of millions of people you don’t know, and – more importantly – the happiness of dozens you do.

What’s been more enjoyable, so far? The fearless words of a gay acquaintance, beneath whose defiance you detect that she is drained by it all? Or seeing that anxious black family on the school run the morning after Charlottesville? How deeply have you drunk of their terror? You’ll vote for him again, of course you will. Because each day has been a victory – for you, each social interaction with those you loathe is a zero-sum game, where their pain must directly result in your pleasure. This is the greatness you craved, and now it is manifest; for you, as fervent as you are furtive, this is the true American Dream.

The far-right AfD have won 13.5% of the German vote. What to do next?

So the AfD, a far-right party, have become the third-largest party in Germany, with 13.5% of the vote. They are the true winners of this election. They ran a campaign that was often chaotic, and always characterised by racist, explicitly Nazi rhetoric. Not neo-Nazi, really; Nazi. Millions of German citizens looked at all that they represented, and thought, “yes, I’ll have some of that”.
 
Despite all this, I am pretty calm about the news. It’s not a shock to me. It’s disappointing, I’ll admit that, because it shows that too many people have refused to heed the warnings of how bad the AfD will be for this society as a whole. Too many people think that the AfD are fine so long as they do unspeakable things to non-white people. We saw this with Trump, we saw this in the UK, we saw this in Holland and Austria and beyond. After a while, you build up something of an immunity to it. I was saying to a friend the other day that it’s a little like when your ears pop on the plane – you become accustomed to the new pressure.
 
13.5%, that’s a lot of people. Still, it’s a confirmation rather than a surprise. If it affects anything in the immediate future, it will be the speed and the focus that I give to the projects that I most care about; it will be the time and the care that I give to people in greatest need, both those I know and those I do not. I have said many times before that I find racism irritating, frustrating and hateful in the extreme because I am too busy trying to make a life for myself. So I’m going to do the same thing I did when Trump was elected – get my head down, and go for it. It’s the only approach that’s ever worked against racism, and it’s the only approach that ever will.

Passing #Trumpcare: the Republican Party’s historic day of shame.

The Republican Party hates women. As an institution it absolutely despises them. This is, to me, abundantly clear. I am not saying anything particularly new or nuanced here, I am merely writing this to register and record my fury alongside the millions of those horrified by the passage of President Trump’s healthcare bill. The bill, as noted by the MSNBC journalist Chris Hayes, “cuts about a trillion dollars in funding for healthcare while cutting taxes for the top 2% by about the same amount”. Not only does it do that, it classifies domestic violence and sexual assault as pre-existing conditions – meaning that those, overwhelmingly women, who have endured these offences will have to pay more for their insurance.

This Bill is not only perverse, greedy, and grubby; it is vicious, bigoted, cruel and disgusting. It is an endlessly squalid piece of legislation and it is again clear that the only reason Trump pledged to drain the swamp was to refill it with yet more toxic effluent. The only thing that may surprise Trump may be the fervour with which his party, in which he so long cast himself as the outsider, has so thoroughly embraced his most misogynistic excesses. This Bill is doubtlesssupported by a whole host of people who will go home to their partners and families and tell themselves around their generously-laden dinner tables that they did a good thing today. What they have done instead is to demonstrate far beyond any ambiguity just what the modern Republican Party is about. When I think of them, I think of the James Baldwin quote from “Stranger in the Village”, where he states that “people who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state on innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”  In my view, those who have voted through this bill have turned themselves into monsters.  And should Trump last four years in office, should he be re-elected – because, even now, there are still millions largely content with the job that he is doing – he would have to go a very long way, as would the government he leads, to conjure a more shameful day than this.

 

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To resist this Bill, and to aid those who are doing so, then thanks to @Iron_Spike’s account on Twitter there are some excellent strategies at the following links:

https://twitter.com/toastasaurus/status/827584227893968900

https://twitter.com/Iron_Spike/status/860198492341506048

https://twitter.com/Iron_Spike/status/860198872634847234

As @Iron_Spike so perfectly states: “Don’t forget how you feel right now. Make them regret every second of this.

On David Moyes and misogyny.

Following the news that David Moyes had threatened to slap a female reporter in return for questions that he found uncomfortable, I read an article on the subject by The Independent’s Ian Herbert, a writer whose work I regularly enjoy and share. His article began by noting that this was the not the first time that Mr. Moyes had acted this way, but then quickly took a disappointing direction. I quote in full:

It was in the 2012/13 season, in Moyes’ Everton days, that a woman had the temerity to ask a question which went against the grain of how he wanted a pre-match press conference to go, during the initial broadcasters’ section of the conversation. Moyes cut her down. There was a very uncomfortable moment, after the cameras and broadcasters had cleared and we got down to the more detailed untelevised discussion, when Moyes tried to break the ice in all-male company with a joke at the now departed woman’s expense. No-one wanted to be impolite but everyone stared at the floor.” (My italics.)

I have highlighted the above section because that section is unfortunately what people mean when they refer to the “boy’s club” of football. Football is a particularly insular sport, where access often is a journalist’s lifeblood, and some might argue that speaking out about misogyny in this context might see them barred from the club. Yet this does not negate the argument that to remain silent about Moyes’ remarks is to enable them.

Mr. Herbert continues:

That was not the only incident. He lost his temper with another woman journalist towards the end of his Everton time, though it was smoothed over. This correspondent didn’t report any of this, of course – just a reference to the conduct of a “top flight manager” a few seasons later. ” (My italics.)

The two words here, “of course”, are interesting. I don’t think it follows that a journalist, particularly not one as successful and respected as Mr. Herbert, would naturally ignore Moyes’ behaviour. He is a writer with the platform to have made a much bigger deal of this incident, but chose not to. I think that this article reads as a form of mea culpa – that the journalist could have done more to raise awareness about this at the time, but didn’t. The fact that he made a reference to the conduct of a top-flight manager shows that his conscience was clearly piqued – he clearly disapproved of Moyes’ conduct – but he and others did not take the risk to their own careers of speaking out as fully as they could.

Mr. Herbert, referring to another incident involving the former France international Laurent Blanc, describes the scenario thus:

Just a laugh, a flustered press officer, a woman who wants to be anywhere but that room, and the gilded football world packs up and moves on.

This, I think, is the problem. Mr. Herbert is a part of that football world, an integral part; he has worked his way up the precarious ladder, and taking too bold a stand would see him sent toppling from it. But nothing changes if we as journalists – particularly male ones – are not more forceful in our critiques. Mr. Herbert seems to drawing this conclusion when he writes that:

You only have to play back the footage of Moyes to hear something infinitely more threatening and deeply unpleasant about his words and their escalating sense of menace…Since when does a football manager threaten to slap one of the vast male majority? The unwritten message was “because you’re a woman.” And it didn’t stop there. “Careful the next time you come in,” he told Sparks.

This paragraph, on the face of it, is utterly damning. Physical violence is apparently something with which Moyes would only threaten a woman. The message seems to be clear – that football is essentially a man’s game and a woman speaks out of turn at her peril. Come into the club and try that again, and you’ll get what’s coming to you.

With this in mind, I find Mr. Herbert’s closing thoughts extremely confusing.

So now we reach the question of whether this episode should bring Moyes the sack and the answer, despite all of the above, is surely: ‘No.’ Women journalists despise the conduct of an individual like this but they want to be involved in the same cut and thrust as every male journalist who goes up against managers with as little self-control as Moyes. Dismissal will make many other managers inclined to make women a special case. Nobody wants thatDismissal is not necessary to demonstrate that Moyes is yesterday’s man.

I can’t speak for female journalists. What I can say is – based upon Mr. Herbert’s own writing, just a paragraph before – that no matter how bad the cut and thrust a male journalist might face against Moyes, it is not a cut and thrust which involves the threat of physical violence.  It is a danger that Mr. Herbert, and I, and my other male peers will never have to face – if anything, Moyes has made a special case for men like us, because we know that as much as we annoy him he will not suggest striking us. Put simply, a male journalist doesn’t have to go into work facing the fear of being assaulted by a football manager. Why, then, should a female journalist be exposed to that risk?

In short, I think that Mr. Herbert has actually made an excellent case for David Moyes’ dismissal. He just doesn’t seem to realise it.

What’s the point of art, at times like these?

What’s the point of art, at times like these? In truth, I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that there is a value in hope, and there always will be. And so I made a conscious choice at the start of this year to make art which had hope at its core – that is to say, if I had any creative ideas which had an underlying message of pessimism, then I didn’t pursue them. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of apocalyptic art now and then – Radiohead’s “Idioteque” has always felt like the kind of dance tune you would hear at the end of the world – and I think that there is tremendous worth in music that is the soundtrack to despair. It allows us to feel that others understand our helplessness. For my part, I also feel the need to create work that has a positive outlook – that, if I am honest, has happy endings. Because I think that for many millions of people going about their lives, being happy has always been a radical act; and if I can create anything which enables that act, then I’m going to go for it.

Below are the lyrics for a song I wrote on the afternoon before the US election, “Higher Course”. I have had a strong sense since around late February that Donald Trump would win the presidency, and have like many others drawn parallels between his rhetoric and that of far-right leaders in modern Europe and further back in history. I think it bears repeating, especially now, that there is nothing inevitable about the ascent of these demagogues; that the margins by which they are being elected are still very narrow; and that, within those narrowest margins, there is still room for a message of hope.

“Higher Course”

The old ideas return,

We’re on the verge,

The brutes become more brave –

These injured souls,

Their eyes are Berlin-winter-cold,

and frozen;

They’ve sold us fear,

and here the price we’ve paid is dear –

But then we pause,

since of course we’ve seen their like before:

They’re nothing new,

The early nineteen-thirties ushered through;

They close their doors,

But we’re answering their storms with warmth –

They stalk the lowest roads,

We take the higher course.

Rest in peace Carlos Alberto, a true gentleman.

Here is a quick word for Carlos Alberto, the captain of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning side, who passed a few hours ago. He was a true gentleman, and I am very fortunate to have one first-hand story among doubtless many to prove it.

In 2014, I travelled to his house on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro with a brilliant team from the BBC World Service, Jim Frank and Fernanda Nidecker, to interview Mr. Alberto for “The Burden of Beauty”, a documentary that we were making about the upcoming World Cup. Mr. Alberto could not have been a more welcoming host. He spoke with notable warmth about Brazil’s players, most notably Neymar and Oscar, the latter of whom he likened favourably (off the record, since he did not want to put any more pressure on the Chelsea midfielder during the tournament) to Gerson. He pointed fondly to a picture above his mantelpiece where he was embracing Bobby Moore after their classic clash at that World Cup. “He was my friend”, he said, with a moving nostalgia.

After about an hour in Mr. Alberto’s company, during which he described in thrilling detail his famous goal in the final against Italy, we had to head back into town. However, it was rush hour by then, and taxis in Rio were at a premium. The traffic was horrific, and the waiting time for a cab was probably close to an hour. Without hesitation, Mr. Alberto asked us to get into the back of his car, and the World Cup-winning captain joined the miles-long snake of vehicles in the hope of finding us a ride back into town. After fifteen minutes or so, he caught sight of a stray, unoccupied taxi, and flagged it down. The taxi driver, double-taking at the sight of this Brazilian football great, duly pulled over and let us in, and the last we saw of Mr. Alberto was the back of his head and the back of his hand as he waved us graciously away. It was harder to imagine a gesture more humble from a man who had fulfilled the dreams of millions; and it explained why today, and for endless years to come, he will be held in the very highest esteem. Carlos Alberto; an exceptional footballer, and by untold accounts, an even better human being.

On turning thirty-seven.

I am now 37. Thirty-seven! My God, how did this happen? My mother, already widowed, had four children by now. Four! All I’m worrying about is three deadlines. She was much more efficient with her time than I am. How do you manage five lives including your own – how do you feed that many mouths and minds? I rarely have the discipline to sit down for three meals a day. At times like this I marvel at the miraculous sacrifice of parenthood. Meanwhile, three years from my fortieth birthday, I’m still wandering from cafe to cafe, trying to make each piece of work better than the last. This really is the most bizarre of lives, and I still wonder how I ended up here.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ageing recently, much more than I would care to admit. Age is a funny thing – it rumbles along unnoticed for the longest while, and there it suddenly is, hammering at your front door. Age is an attention-seeking child; the more you try to ignore it, the more it manifests itself. This summer, I went down to the local basketball court, to work out for some pre-season training; I used to be able to dunk the ball comfortably, but now I could barely touch the rim. Wait, what? When did that happen? When did I fall out of the sky?!

But then I was reminded how it works – that youth is never really yours, it’s just on loan. And, if I’m honest, I would have noticed my loss of leap much earlier, if I hadn’t stopped caring so much about sport – one of the healthier developments of the last few years. I mean, sport is great and all, but an obsessive interest with people chasing each other around the place is ultimately unhealthy. (See also: Internet dating.)

I think the last truly anxious birthday I had was probably my twenty-seventh or twenty-eighth. That’s when I was about three years out from leaving my job as a lawyer, and was wondering whether I had made the right gamble. Since then I just haven’t had so much energy to worry about such stuff. What I have realised, over time, is that I want to do two things with my life, in this order: (1) make work that resonates with people as deeply as possible, and (2) be grateful for the spectacular piece of luck that saw me born in a Western European democracy with free healthcare in the late Seventies. Number (2) is really, really important, because I’m from a group of people known as the Acholi, from Northern Uganda; and at one point in the 1990s, they were confined to refugee camps where a thousand people were dying every week. They had one of the highest child mortality rates in the world at one point; I know this because my mum, apart from raising us, used to go to those camps and provide free healthcare every summer for years on end.

Yes; my mum’s done a lot. I think more and more about that as time goes on, in between contemplating my next poem or slice of cake. I’ve been given a lot, really – more than anyone could ever ask. Sure, I’ve taken many of my opportunities, but I’m ten minutes’ bus ride away from a Syrian refugee centre, where several of the residents will be mourning friends and relatives who never stood a chance.

I am finally learning to forgive myself for not being superhuman. My mum is superhuman, and so I thought it was only my duty to emulate her. I am finally learning to enjoy life, and not to feel too guilty at the life of freedom that I have been given – because, quite frankly, nobody likes a whinger.

I’ll most likely be ranting about something else in the next few days, but at times like this I really do try to reflect, and to be positive. I’m not really a religious sort, and so I think that this is pretty much all there is. And when I think about it, this is good, really. I live in a lovely flat with three windows casting natural light onto my writing desk, on a street corner just busy enough that the traffic is music. The pound is currently doing horrifying things against the euro, but life is still affordable enough; and my family and friends (touching wood, always touching wood) are mostly doing well, making it through. Thirty-seven is definitely one of life’s kinder milestones. I think it may be time for some cake.

A short note about being shy.

I have a running joke with my friends that I am painfully shy. It normally involves me saying how uncomfortable I feel speaking in front of large crowds or talking to complete strangers, and it normally ends with them groaning in disbelief and reaching for my throat in mock despair. For them, the thought of me lacking confidence in any social setting is laughable. Here’s the funny thing, though; there was a time when I was that shy.

 

I thought of this recently when I heard from a close friend, a superb artist who was doubting the quality of her work. It reminded me of just how hard-won my own self-belief has been. As some of you may know, I am a keen musician; what some of you might not know is that I used to hate my speaking voice so much that merely listening to it used to bring me to tears. (Though that might still be the case for many of you, I eventually got over it.) The only way to overcome my horror at how I sounded was to listen to one of my songs on repeat until all of the self-disgust had left my system. I had to do this, I reasoned, because if I wanted to be a successful artist – be that as a public speaker, or anything else – then I simply couldn’t afford to be shy. It just wasn’t an option.

 

Looking back, I think that having grown up as a black person in mostly-white environments has really helped me. If you’re black and almost everyone else in your class and school is white, then you can’t blend into the background – you’re naturally just going to be more visible in a crowd. And so, given that you will more easily catch the eye, you learn to adapt. If you’re going to be conspicuous, you may as well be confident with it.

 

I suppose I’m only writing this to point out that self-confidence doesn’t come as naturally as people might think that it does, whether that be belief in your art or in yourself. Perhaps, when joking about being shy, I am not just mocking this ego that I have successfully grown; maybe I’m also thumbing my nose at the past, where my insecurities inhibited me from doing so much of what I wanted. And maybe, one day, that past will be so far behind me that I won’t even need to refer to it anymore, even in jest.

Simone Biles, and trying too hard.

Art is a funny thing. Creating your best work is often a tortuous process; yet, at the same time, you need to be relaxed, at least to a degree. It’s such a contradiction. I think that athletes – who, in a sense, are artists too – understand this well. It’s the balance between furiously applying a craft you’ve studied for years, and at the same time letting go. If I look back at the better work that I have made, there has always been one thing in common – a period when, however brief, the writing seemed to tumble out, as if it were already there.

It’s possible, as a writer, to want success too much. That often manifests itself in contorted plots, or overly-descriptive prose. I guess the sporting equivalent is the over-hit putt or pass, the relay baton that you drop because your hand’s too rigid. The most successful writing I have ever done, in my view, was that where the work felt almost underwritten; where I had stripped back everything to the point where it felt almost banal. If I have one rule as a writer, it’s this: keep it simple, but never basic. There’s a cliche about how you need to be desperate in order to make it as an artist, but I don’t think that’s wholly true. I definitely think you need a yearning of some kind, but all of the best artists manage to find their greatest poise, their deepest calm, in the midst of that desperation; that’s why Simone Biles, the world watching her for any hint of a slip, still plants her feet with perfect firmness, and grins her way into history.