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): elizabeth.frazer@new.ox.ac.uk.

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. Continue reading

‘Like A Machete’: Is Viagra A Weapon Of War Rape In Libya?

My friend and colleague Mark Kersten has been drawing my attention over the last weeks to a spate of stories about Libya in which it is claimed Gaddafi has been distributing Viagra as an inducement to sexual violence against ‘enemy’ civilian populations. Colum Lynch reported in late April that Ambassador Susan Rice had cited the use of Viagra and evidence of sexual violence during a meeting of the UN Security Council (although this itself is at least third hand – Lynch seems to have picked up the details from Reuters who were passed the information by a UN diplomat who was in the room). The story seems to have originated, or first surfaced, at The Daily Mail, which claimed “numerous reports” of Viagra use.

The testimony of Suleiman Refadi, an Ajdabiya surgeon, in this Al Jazeera piece is the closest thing to a direct claim that Viagra has been distributed to troops. But, as Lynch points out, Human Rights Watch followed up his allegations and say that Refadi had “no direct evidence”, which I assume means either that he himself hadn’t seen the Viagra and condoms, or that some had been found, but not in any pattern that would associate them with a strategy of war rape. Human Rights Watch have a number of reports and commentaries addressing rape in Libya, but do not seem to have found the Viagra claims credible enough to include. Now the International Criminal Court is investigating. Luis Moreno-Ocampo intimates that he has solid evidence for the claims and declares: “It’s like a machete…It’s new. Viagra is a tool of massive rape.”

That kind of blanket statement makes me suspicious. Reports are so far conflating (or not sufficiently distinguishing) two different claims: 1) that government forces are engaged in rape in Libya; and 2) that Viagra (and sometimes condoms) are handed out as an incentive or aid for that. Claim 1 is entirely plausible and there is already good evidence for it in the case of Libya. Elisabeth Jean Wood has done some important early work on the question of variation in wartime sexual violence and her early conclusions are that there are some contexts in which rape doesn’t occur in war. But the number of such cases is very small. Rape in war is overwhelmingly the norm. This should lead us to a number of questions about type, degree, form, causes and the exact sense in which we mean ‘tool’, ‘weapon’ and ‘strategy’. But reports of rape by soldiers are not in themselves at all surprising.

What is new is the second claim. Continue reading

The Qaddafi Controversy

Saif Gaddafi (PhD, LSE, 2008) has lost a lot of friends recently. Even Mariah Carey is embarrassed by him now. The institution to which I have some personal and professional attachment is implicated in a number of intellectual crimes and misdemeanours, as may be a swathe of research on democracy itself. Investigations are under way, by bodies both official and unofficial. All of this now feels faintly old-hat (how much has happened in the last month?), even rather distasteful given the high politics and national destinies currently in the balance. So let the defence be pre-emptive: the academy has political uses, and those with some stake in it need feel no shame in discussing that. If crises are to be opportunities, let us at least attempt to respond to them with clarity and coherence. After all, our efforts are much more likely to matter here than in self-serving postures as the shapers of global destiny.

Saif’s academic predicament is both a substantive issue in its own right and a symptom. As substance, there is now a conversation of sorts around complicity and blame. Over the last weeks, David Held has appealed for calm and attempted a fuller justification of his mentorship (Held was not the thesis supervisor and Saif was not even a research student in his Department at the time, although he, um, “met with him every two or three months, sometimes more frequently, as I would with any PhD student who came to me for advice”). Most fundamentally, it was not naivety but a cautious realism based on material evidence that led a pre-eminent theorist of democracy to enter into what we could not unreasonably call ‘constructive engagement’. [1]

Held characterises the resistance of Fred Halliday to all this as reflecting his view that “in essence, [Saif] was always just a Gaddafi”, which of course makes him sound like someone in thrall to a geneticist theory of dictatorship. The actual objection was somewhat more measured, and, if only ‘in retrospect’, entirely astute:

Continue reading