Bernie Sanders, the patriarch, run 2

One of the more shocking revelations of the US 2016 election was how it showed how deep rooted misogyny is in politics… not only on the right with the dumbest orange sexist ever, but also on the left. It seemed for some time that the preferred avoidance strategy of serious introspection in the Democratic Party took the form of Clinton bashing. Of course, no leftie man or complicit woman admitted of blaming Clinton for losing the presidency with the greatest voter win in US history because she was a woman. Of course, they blamed her for losing the electoral college for all sorts of other reasons: that she was too elitist, that she had been debating, speaking and politicking too well, that she was not enough or too leftist, that she was wearing $3000 shoes, that she didn’t speak to ‘left-behind white working class’, yaddayaddayadda. Basically, that she was not Bernie Sanders who, for some delusionists, would have won the election left-handed and blind.

This time round, that the key woman running for the Democrats candidacy, Elizabeth Warren, is a woman who is clearly more on the left than Clinton, who does not wear $3000 shoes, who is sometimes short of words or uses the wrong ones, who is a fierce and sometimes oversimplistic debater and who proudly claims her connections to workers and minorities, so this time we should really see the Democrats, and especially the so-called progressive left, rally around the woman. In the current backlash and white supremacist atmosphere of US politics having a woman run for president would seem revolution enough, wouldn’t it? Sadly, no.

Even though Sanders’ and Warren’s platforms differ mainly that Warren doesn’t call herself a socialist, it is again the man, the white, old and white-haired one that is portrayed as the more competent, more compassionate, the more woke and more able. Bernie, the daddy figure, will fix it. Whatever he might be accused of, sexual harassment in his 2016 campaign team or financial obscurities, some lefties happily pardon by citing his oh-so-progressive program. Whatever program Warren proposes, on the other hand, gets clouded in out-spiralling debates over her heritage or the fact that she, contrary to Sanders, has worked in other jobs than politics in her life. As Clinton before Warren is caught in a catch-22 she cannot win: either she is too inexperienced as a politician or she is too politicky a politician; either she is too far left and daring in her proposal, or not enough; either she is too old or too young. Whatever, she’s simply not a white, old man.

In the face of a feud between the two helping the more centrist Joe Biden or Peter Buttigieg the common proposition hence is that Warren should cede to Sanders. The patriarchal understanding of parity and equal treatment: if a woman is as qualified (or even more than) a man, she’d be a perfect assistant to him. Sexism sits deep even (or especially) on the progressive left.

When will the ‘suck-it-up’ attitude to women’s health end?

I’m an average woman. And I am fifty. So, as a good average person I am premonopausal. I get a hot flush every two hours or so, some stronger, some lesser. A hot flush feels like extreme blushing but there’s nothing you are embarrassed about. Nobody can see a hot flush because actually you are not blushing. It’s just the heart racing, the head becoming all hot from the ears, and sweating, sweating, sweating as if I’ve just done 25 push-ups in 30 seconds (or so). At night it wakes me up and I can appreciate my stress level by the time it takes me to fall asleep again (sometimes never) and how quickly loss of sleep will turn my commonly very soft tinnitus into a wild water river racing through my ears. As an average woman, I do what the majority of women do in this case. I suck it up. Eventually get nervous and do what far fewer women do: I go and talk about it, and seek out whether this is not something else like hyperthyroid or (beware) some strange cancer, look it up on the internet, see the doctor and get blood tests done.

And yet, the response is the same everywhere. That’s how it is, we know that it’s a symptom of your body not producing as much oestrogen as before and, no, we don’t know why that causes hot flushes, headache, dizziness, migraines, muscle and joint pain, and exceptionally unpredictable mood swings, and, no, there’s no real thing medicine can offer you except munching artificial hormones that might cause breast cancer in 10 years. Your cholesterol is fine, by the way.

A long list of well intended advice follows: do more yoga, get the shrink in, eat more tofu. What? Yes, eat more tofu because in Asia and Africa women do not complain about menopause because they eat more tofu (in Africa?) and tofu has some sort of fake oestrogen (or was it progesterone?) and that’s why they don’t experience all the ‘uncomfortable’ symptoms of menopause. Because that’s what they are; they are ‘uncomfortable’. Not really worth talking about, actually. Like trousers sitting too tight (did I mention the weight gain?), a mosquito bite or a fibre between your front teeth. Uncomfortable.

There are a multitude of studies now that show that a doctor’s attention to a patient is dependent on gender, race and class. Every woman will have at least one story to share about how a serious disease of hers has been not taken seriously by the doctor she has been seeing, how she has been administered useless or, worse, inappropriate medicines, and how she had to insist and fight to get the right diagnosis or treatment. For many women, this means that serious illnesses are not diagnosed early enough, treatments ill administered and lives cut short (as for instance in the case of my not-to-be-colleague at the University of Sussex, Dr Lisa Smirl). Every time this means that women’s experience of pain or bodily dysfunction are downplayed or outrightly ignored. They are considered as ‘discomfort’ in the best case, as ‘hysterical’ in the worst – a disdain that gets reinforced if a woman is of lower social status or of colour as the doctor as the experience of even such a powerful woman like Serena Williams (who should really be trusted of knowing her body in and out) shows.

So, when I am told that women in Asia and Africa do not seem to experience ‘uncomfortable’ symptoms of menopause, what does this mean? Well, it can actually mean anything and a lot except that women in Asia and Africa don’t experience hot flushes, migraines, muscle and joint paint, heart rate roller coasters, mood swings, depression, fatigue or abdominal pains. It can mean that they do not complain because they know that they will not be taken seriously, because they have so much internalised that all this is just ‘discomfort’ that comes with being a woman (and shameful discomfort as it is since it’s our sexual reproductive organs that are changing!), that it’s all in our heads and a question of the right attitude. Or it can mean that they do complain but that nobody listens, nobody records, nobody who has the power to record does so, or that nobody takes them seriously. Or it can mean both. It definitely means that women’s bodies and especially women’s bodily functions that have to do with sex, reproduction and intimacy continue to be shamed, denied, neglected, ignored, silenced, disdained, and only taken so far into consideration as they can serve as consumerist dumping ground for the pharmaceutical industries. It also means that modern medicine is more dominated by capitalist and consumerist logics than by genuine interest in the functioning and well-being of human bodies; and that these logics are, in turn, gendered, classed and racialized (which wouldn’t really come as surprise) as they sort out what is worth medical attention and what is not.

Introducing ‘The daily feminist’

The blog ‘The daily feminist’ will document and discuss the many insidious little everyday events that reveal and reproduce mechanisms, behaviours and social structures that oppress people on the grounds of their gender. Obviously, these are observations of a white woman of upper middle class background in an affluent ‘Northern’ country (that is geographically located far in the Southern hemisphere). It is my perspective as this is my blog. Yet, I do hope that by recording these incidents that seem so insignificant when taken in isolation people of other backgrounds on the receiving end of misogyny can recognise their experiences or thoughts.

Language, abstraction and translation

Preparatory sketch for Guernica, Pablo Picasso, Musée Les Abattoirs, Toulouse

When going to a museum with a 8-year old one needs to find ways to tell the stories that the pictures on the wall tell. The more explicit the story is the easier this is of course. European paintings from the Renaissance to the 19th century are always easier to translate than abstract modern art. Contemporary art often tells such strange stories and is so much defined by breaking common narrative or disturbing ‘normal’ codes that children are sometimes much faster to grasp their ideas. Looking at this preparatory sketch of Picasso’s Guernica with my 8-year old proved to be a particularly difficult exercise of abstraction. Not only should she understand that what is depicted here as relatively real-looking (a horse’s head in pain) was symbolic but also that the symbols reflected something she had never experienced from close or far (and hopefully never will): war, bombs, rubble, pain, screams, dust, panic, pain, blood and grieve so deep the deepest black cannot tell.

The stories therefore do not tell themselves but need to be translated into the experience of an 8-year old. When our worlds come to an end, our words must not necessarily but we need to find the images, experiences, resonances, thoughts and feelings that can replace the failing words. How do you look if you feel pain? What colour do you associate with fear? What movement would your body do? What sorrow do you see in my eyes now?

Silence, too, can be such a translation. If we have nothing more to say, if our silence indicates that words cannot be enough or right, then silence speaks. It is the recognition that we cannot enforce meaning or understanding but we can create an impression and a memory of the story that is told. Like a song whose sadness we understand by its melody and not its lyrics.

Such silence requires a lot of respect and acknowledgment. Our own self, our words have to stand back and let space be filled by the images, stories, ideas and feelings of others without being able of controlling, measuring or judging them. This is probably the most important reason why academia does not like silence and has no space for it to be expressed. Even the symbolic … is followed by words. Silence cannot be a space of power or authority. It diminishes the academic, it relativises the knowledge and stature that have been so studiously achieved through words, and more words. And this, this, makes the poverty of academia.

China and the UN: Playing Go in international relations

The trouble with China is that it is not behaving the way either Realist or Liberal theories of international relations want it to behave. In terms of these traditional approaches to IR, China is becoming bigger and stronger and more powerful every day. China holds more than 14trillion US$ in foreign exchange reserve; it has a population of almost 1.4 billion; in absolute GDP it is the strongest economy in the world and its military is, if not the largest (that’s by far the US) big, modern and equipped with nuclear weapons. All this, so tell us realists like John Mearsheimer should push China to become extremely competitive and nasty as it grows stronger, eventually leading to a confrontation with the USA and to war. Yes, yes, that is what will happen, tells us Graham T. Allison, even if nobody wants it because becoming big and strong when there is a big and strong superpower in the world has always led to war in Europe in the past couple of hundred years.

Detail from the Jingban tianwen quantu, showing a world map derived from the Sancai tuhui (Illustrated compilation of the Three Powers; 1607). Source: The Library of Congress Map Room (online collection); taken from http://apjjf.org/2013/11/3/Richard-J.-Smith/3888/article.html

Now, looking into European history for knowing what will happen with China is  an excellent way to show that Eurocentrism leads to weird ways of thinking about international politics. China has a thousand-year old history of diplomacy, war and peace of its own. Its geopolitical as well as economic position in the world is rather different than that of Spain in the 16th, France’s in the 17th, Russia’s in the 18th, Great-Britain’s in the 19th century or Germany’s in the 20th century. Its history of national unity and nationalism, its internal political structures and the way it has rather slipped than marched into the international scene over the past thirty years… these are only few of the factors that should make you think twice about using European or North-American analogies if you are seriously interested in understanding where this country is heading .

Very obviously the way the international system has been built upon diplomacy and international law, and how the discipline of international relations has come to take the European war-state paradigm as universal feature of the international do not seem to fit the bill with China. Yes, China does behave like a high school bully in the South China Sea, it does not hide its military and wants everyone , and particularly Taiwan, to see how many shiny new toys it has; yes, the Chinese government and media often display high levels of aggressive nationalistic rhetoric; and yes, they also follow rather closely the script of 20th century discourses on sovereignty, non-interference and inviolability of borders. In short, China does tend to be ‘assertive’ when it comes to its territorial integrity (notably with respect to Taiwan) and its undoubtedly traditionally defined sovereignty. These are the moments where China’s behaviour seems the most congruent to IR textbooks on international diplomacy. But as good student of international relations, China also plays the game extremely nicely to the rules and has yet not shown even the slightest signs of the hubris and destructiveness other ‘rising powers’ have displayed. If it is supposed to emulate Germany in the early 20th century, then China clearly does not play this role very well.

Indeed, China  has shied away from direct military confrontations after its ill-fated incursion into Vietnam in 1979. It has shown a pragmatically cooperative approach in the international organisations it has joined since 1949. It is seeking to build up cooperative ties with its neighbours. It has used its huge economic power wisely and cooperatively in the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing global economic crisis. And it has engaged more and more in multi-lateral international aid and United Nations security politics. And it has now declared loudly and strongly its intention to support UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s remodelling of the UN.

China is ready to work together with other countries to forge a new form of international relations featuring mutual respect, fairness, justice and win-win cooperation, to build a community with a shared future for mankind, and to build an open, inclusive, clean and beautiful world that enjoys lasting peace, universal security and common prosperity,” they write in in their recent position paper on UN reforms. These are not very original words and the further pages of the Chinese position paper carefully follow this common-talk, vague-and-nice line of UN talk.

Yet, given the current state of American UN ‘diplomacy’, China’s position paper comes as a clear eyes-on-the-prize announcement that China would be happy to take over the US role as motor of international multilateralism should the US leave that post vacant. This move is not formulated as an open challenge and the strategy rather seems to be to discretely slip into the gap that has opened between the Trump’s USA and the rest of the world. The position paper cleverly focuses on all areas the Trump ‘administration’ has decided to shun in the past year: development assistance and here particularly women’s rights and gender parity, peacekeeping and conflict prevention, humanitarian assistance, and internal management, budget and human resources reforms.

It formulates clearly three fundamentals of China’s foreign policy: the insistence sovereignty in its full territorial sense (inviolability of borders) and of states as sole subjects of international law (reflecting precisely its ‘one country, two systems’ politics towards Taiwan); and a focus on pragmatic, technocratic and managerial, hence, ‘apolitical’, approaches to challenges of international cooperation. So far, its approach corresponds to the classical liberal-institutionalist view of international politics where states understand quickly that the relative gains of cooperation are more important than the absolute gains of domination.

However, China also slips in a third principle that quite fundamentally disturbs the basic tenets of liberal institutionalism, namely a carefully but persistently formulated refutation of globally applicable UN politics. Although the position paper repeats the universal value of the UN and its Charter, its overall tone tells a different story of de-centralization, regionalisation and differentiation of cooperation. Whether in terms of conflict resolution, peacekeeping and fighting terrorism, or in terms of economic and social development, the position paper proposes each time a ‘everyone-their-own’ approach. It proposes to leave the UN as central bureaucracy to coordinate and funnel human and financial resources. But the real decisions, those on what to prioritise, what to define as security risk or development need, what to do simply, these decisions should be left to nation-states and, as far as possible, regional arrangements or arrangements between those states that are primarily concerned by such measures. The UN organs and institutions should be remodelled to allow such decentralized, case-by-case and variable geometry decision-making. For instance, decisions on peacekeeping and conflict resolution should be removed as much as possible from the UN Security Council and taken by the UN peacebuilding commission under consultation of the host country/ies and the contributing countries. Development policies equally should be more deeply anchored in specialized agencies (for instance by reviving the Economic and Social Council) and consultation mechanisms of receiving and contributing states strengthened in these, or, even better, delegated to regional sub-divisions.

The Chinese position paper shows that China clearly wants to write its own story of international cooperation but not according to the frontal confrontation rules of 19th century European-style war-and-concert diplomacy. The Europeans invented the two-dimensional, linear chess game to mimic diplomacy and war; the Chinese invented Go which thinks strategy fluidly in multiple spaces. The UN position paper shows that China today orients its foreign policy on principles of Go rather than chess and that it is time for Eurocentric IR to learn something new.