The Poisonous Drivel of Dr Denis MacShane MP

UPDATE (31 May): Crooked Timber have picked up the issue too. And MacShane has replied (in the comments at openDemocracy). His riposte is aptly characterised by Michael Otsuka as a “simulacrum of a genuine apology”. In short, having called into question the intellectual faculties of an LSE Professor and described her views as poisonous drivel (not that they were her views you’ll remember), MacShane now claims he meant no offence. Having taken words out of context, mis-attributed intentions and views to Phillips and not considered the conditions in which the question was posed, MacShane now complains that he is taken out of context, that the complainants don’t understand his views and that they haven’t considered the conditions in which his question was posed. Yes, really. Readers can surely decide for themselves, although we should not think too highly of a rear-guard ‘apology’ which begins “Gosh, well it makes a change from the BNP and Europhobes having a go” and ends “I just wish I was 100 per cent certain that…there is not a scintilla of concern out there in academistan that rather than posit an either/or argument a stand might be taken”. Yes, academistan. And in case you’re puzzled by what the ‘scintilla of concern’ refers to, it’s not the academic freedom issues raised by the Association for Political Thought and it’s not about elected Members trawling reading lists for cod-incriminating questions with which to verbally bash named academics. Instead what is meant is that by protesting his error, we supposedly signal that we’re not that bothered about the wrongs of sex trafficking and prostitution. What to say about such logic? Concerned members of the Association for Political Thought can apparently add their names to the statement by contacting Elizabeth Frazer (Oxford):

UPDATE (30 May): Happy to see that this issue has been picked up by Liberal Conspiracy, openDemocracy, Feminist Philosophers and others. There’s now a statement with signatures from members of the Association for Political Thought condemning Denis MacShane in appropriately harsh terms (although I think it’s a tad hard on Fiona Mactaggart who, after all, was responding off the cuff to an unsolicited intervention, and did somewhat trim her comments by talking about ‘sufficient challenge’ to all views). People certainly keep following links here, more than a week on. I’m not aware of any response from MacShane himself, although I know from several readers that his office has been contacted about this matter. He certainly hasn’t tweeted about it. Perhaps these new developments might convince him of the need to correct some of his own views.

LSE-bashing is certainly in vogue. Following the travesties of GaddafiGate, some are eager to find further fault. Enter the Rt Hon Dr Denis MacShane MP (PhD in International Economics, Birkbeck, 1990). During a Commons debate earlier this week on human trafficking, he responded to the citing of an LSE report on the treatment of victims thusly:

Mr MacShane: My hon. Friend mentioned the London School of Economics. Is she aware of its feminist political theory course, taught by Professor Anne Phillips? In week 8 of the course, students study prostitution. The briefing says:

“If we consider it legitimate for women to hire themselves out as low-paid and often badly treated cleaners, why is it not also legitimate for them to hire themselves out as prostitutes?”

If a professor at the London School of Economics cannot make the distinction between a cleaning woman and a prostituted woman, we are filling the minds of our young students with the most poisonous drivel.

Fiona Mactaggart: I share my right hon. Friend’s view about those attitudes. I hope that the LSE provides sufficient contest to Professor Phillips’s frankly nauseating views on that issue.

Quentin Letts of The Daily Mail, a patronising faux-wit at the best of times, has now picked up the scent and is ready to draw the appropriate conclusions:

Legitimate academic inquiry? Or evidence of drift towards the position of seeing prostitutes as ‘sex workers’? (They’ll want membership of the British Chambers of Commerce next.)…Phillips, a past associate of David Miliband, bores for Britain on the global feminism circuit. I am told she has the hide of an elk. But why, at a time of university cuts, do we need a Gender Institute?

And so ignorance compounds ignorance. MacShane, and by extension Letts, deal in both misrepresentation and in condescending intellectual proscription.
First, the misrepresentation. The quoted words do not come from a ‘briefing’ and they are not the view ‘taught’ by Anne Phillips. MacShane has extracted a single question from a reading list given to Masters students, which is to say a list of relevant texts accompanied by several general questions which arise from a consideration of those readings, and which are to be discussed by individuals who have already demonstrated a degree of intelligence and an aptitude for critical thought. The question, explicitly described as a discussion question, is buttressed by the following passages:

One might expect feminists to unite in opposition to prostitution, seeing it as the ultimate symbol of male domination. In fact, there has been a more complex debate, part of which takes us back to the discussion of contract. Does a contract make something OK? Or are there certain relationships that remain exploitative, even if the parties voluntarily enter them? On the other side, if we consider it legitimate for women to hire themselves out as low paid and often badly treated cleaners, why is it not also legitimate for them to hire themselves out as prostitutes? If we treat these two occupations differently, does that involve an illegitimate paternalism or moralism? Again, does it mean endorsing some view of the body as sacrosanct, or of women as having a ‘special’ relationship to their body?

Students should divide themselves into two groups, one charged with making the case that prostitution is not significantly different from other forms of labour (ie, that it may be poorly paid and highly dangerous, but isn’t especially exploitative just because it involves sex/ the body); the other charged with opposing this. You should meet together before the session to work out your arguments and how you wish to present them… Each group will have 20 minutes in which to present its case. You may choose to elect two or three people from the group as spokespersons or may prefer a more collective presentation. For this week, we all meet together as a single group for a combined two-hour session.

You will, I hope, forgive some belabouring of this point. It would be clear to any reasonable eye that this way of presenting the controversies is somewhat more than an exercise in indoctrination. In fact, it’s the kind of discussion we might like to sit in on. You may also note that two hours is actually quite a long time in which to deal with a range of propositions about prostitution and what they might mean. Recall too that these passages are on the very pages from which MacShane took his quote. Put otherwise, he chose to ignore them, and the various readings provided, in the pursuit of a cheap point. We might further say, contra Letts, that this is at least one reason why we need ‘a’ Gender Institute, so that such matters can be brought into the light and examined critically. Contested views on the status of prostitution exist within feminist theory and it is not only appropriate, but actually quite important, that a course dedicated to exploring feminist theory address them.

Anne Phillips is perfectly able to make conceptual distinctions. One imagines that she is rather better at making distinctions and defending them than is the Honourable Member for Rotherham, at least on current evidence. Now, it happens to be that she does have views on the body as a kind of property, views which are more publicly available than the reading list which MacShane decided to pilfer, and ones which might rather undo his hysterical accusations.

Denis MacShane might not be familiar with the difference between the views of Carole Pateman and Sheila Jeffreys on these matters, and he certainly seems content in his ignorance, but that’s no reason for a public shaming of people who do think about such things. Which brings us to the intellectual proscription.

The Commons debate was not on legitimate speech in academia and it was not about the effects of feminist theory on vulnerable young minds. It was on the approach of the sovereign government of the United Kingdom to human trafficking and its effects. And yet MacShane chose to engage in the shaming of a Professor, and of an institution nominally devoted to education and research, for the particular kinds of questions they posed in academic courses. We are already seeing what this kind of half-assed ‘oversight’ involves when applied to matters of national security, and the implications for research and free inquiry are fairly self-evident. There is no indication that MacShane is familiar with the works in question, still less with the political theory of Anne Phillips, and no suggestion on his part of which particular books are to be removed from library shelves (are we to keep The Idea of Prostitution but carefully dispose of Contested Commodities? Are crusading MPs now to determine not just what subjects can be taught, but also what forms of inquiry count as legitimate?).

Once refracted through the reactionary common-sense of The Daily Mail, these insinuations of pernicious pedagogy take on another aspect. They enliven the anti-feminist backlash. Another data-point in The Decline Of Western Civilization. Harpies instruct our children in the commodification of their own flesh! And what is this gender anyway? The Holy Taxpayer must be appeased, and good housekeeping demands an academic sacrifice. What use is there, after all, in inquiring after gendered patterns of labour, or the rights of women, or migration and domestic work, or family policy and fatherhood, or men in UN peacekeeping, or in economies of war and peace, or race and poverty? What redundancies in our austere times.

6 thoughts on “The Poisonous Drivel of Dr Denis MacShane MP

  1. Pingback: The Blame, Again, Falls Mainly On MacShane… « Back Towards The Locus

  2. Really good stuff Paul! Seems appropriate to point out the real scandal of LSE isn’t Anne Phillips, but rather Satoshi Kanazawa. He’s been making racist claims about the ‘objective’ ugliness of black women (with a sample size of 3 apparently). He’s also said feminism is evil, and even went so far as to call for killing the entire Middle East, women and children included.

    No need to make stuff up like this Phillips case – these are his own words! Backed up with pseudoscientific pretensions.


  3. Pingback: For Shame, MacShane… « Back Towards The Locus

  4. Pingback: MP attacks Anne Phillips’s teaching of feminism « Feminist Philosophers

  5. Pingback: What You Can Get Away With (Nick Barlow's blog) » Blog Archive » Worth Reading 41: Lords, MPs and Elder Gods

  6. Pingback: Academics accuse Labour MP of maligning teacher | Liberal Conspiracy

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