kenny hodgart

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Saying women are more ethical than men does not make it so

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

“Women are not only stronger… they’re more ethical,” said the fashion designer Donatella Versace in a recent interview, adding: “the future belongs to women.”

I have been reminded of these comments over the past few days, by the fall from grace of Brazil’s female president, Dilma Rousseff.

Rousseff is being impeached, having failed to dispel links to a scandal involving kickbacks from Petrobras, the state-owned oil conglomerate, while she was the country’s energy minister. In that fate, she is rather less fortunate than Cristina Kirchner, who was president of neighbouring Argentina until last December: Kirchner managed two full terms, despite numerous claims of corruption, misuse of public funds and falsification of public statistics against her administration.

I grant you, being completely and utterly bent is something for which Latin American politicians are renowned. And sure enough, most of Rousseff’s political opponents, including the male ones waiting to supplant her regime, also stand accused of offences: perjury, money laundering, misappropriating dosh, forging documents, you name it. Politics in Brazil sounds like a barrel of laughs, unless you’re one of the governed. But, anyway, the point is this: the route to advancing equality of the sexes taken by women like Rousseff appears to be equality of venality. What happened to being more ethical? Eh, Donatella?

In the US, however vile and unpleasant Hillary Clinton’s opponents on the right, she knows better than to campaign on an ethics ticket. Firstly, she is a Clinton. And secondly, it seems improbable that she has ever held a position on any issue that hasn’t been tradeable for votes. Nevertheless, a two-fold pitch of being a woman and, by way of corollary, not Donald Trump, should be enough to put her in the White House. If that sounds like an oversimplification, it’s one that’s backed up by the polls: electing America’s first female president is the top reason given for backing the otherwise unloved Hillary in 2016.

The notion that women are a pacifying force in public life, that they are more collaborative and compassionate than men, who all want to be Julius Caesar, was perpetuated in the U.S. by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Plenty of evidence contradicts that thesis, however. In a meta-analysis of  studies involving more than 12 million people, researchers at Iowa State University found an almost 80 per cent overlap between men and women on more than 75 per cent of psychological characteristics. In everything from morality to risk-taking, intelligence, personality traits, leadership style and satisfaction with life, they discovered men and women are just about the same.

The problem here for men arises in deciding which of these competing narratives is less likely to rouse feminists to anger. On the one hand, while they may encourage us to question what we think of as male characteristics, what moron among us would dare to deny any aspect of what women decide constitutes womanhood? On the other hand, it is probably as reckless, if not more, to state a belief in differences between the genders – unless one is willing to go the way of the gelded sycophant and admit that women are just better all-round at being human in the 21st century. That may well be the case but, Jesus, get some spine lads.

Back to actual politics, and women in it, though. For every Catherine the Great, Russia’s enlightened despot, and every Cory Aquino, who was regarded in the Philippines as a national treasure, I will show you a Wu Zetain and a Gloria Arroyo. Wu, who ruled China for 15 years from 690 AD, is thought to have strangled her own daughter in order to frame a rival. Arroyo, who left office in 2010, remains under hospital arrest in Manila, charged with plundering state coffers.

In Britain, opinion is still divided on Margaret Thatcher, but compassion and collaboration are not words unhesitatingly thrown her way. When she died, the singer Morrissey called her “A barbaric terror without an atom of humanity.” Another conservative, Angela Merkel, fares rather better in her country’s affections, but her approach to diplomacy has been described as “Kissingerian”, for which read cunning as a rat.

On the left, Indira Ghandi was a ruthless political operator who went to war with Pakistan and ruled India by decree during a two-year state of emergency. Julia Gillard’s backdoor grab for power in Australia would have impressed Machiavelli. And, seemingly quiescent over the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, even Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi has let her halo slip since her release from house arrest in 2010.

None of this is to argue against having more female politicians. According to the United Nations, the percentage of women in politics globally has almost doubled in the past two decades, but it’s still only at 22 per cent. Some places are going at the issue with less zeal than others. Lots of countries now have some kind of gender quota system in place, though. And where I come from, the government in the devolved Scottish parliament has a completely gender-balanced cabinet, in addition to its three main parties all having female leaders.

It is rare nowadays that we get to say Scotland represents the future of anything. In this instance, though, it does. Personally, I think anyone who wants a career in politics should be put in chains, but the quotas? I’m all for them. In the west, women are doing better in education than men and they’re starting businesses at a higher rate too. Online, social media networks are culturally feminised spaces. Why shouldn’t public life fall in line? More quotas, I say. Women-only shortlists. Ban men from standing for election. Ban them from leaving the house. Just don’t tell me women are going to run the world differently.

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Review: Alpha Dogs, by James Harding

This article appeared in The Herald

It seems a little incongruous, even in this day and age, to find a book written by an Englishman – the editor of the Times, no less – so obviously couched in American phrasing and idioms. Yet not only is Alpha Dogs written for the American market, it is about the rise, in America, of a caste of professional strategists in politics and how they came to wield power in political campaigns around the world. Ultimately, it is about the homogenisation of the electoral process. The non-American reader might puzzle over a term like “lunch-bucket Democrat” but as Harding states, we are all fans of the West Wing now.

Whether that’s true, literally, the point is we all get what’s going on in politics. As citizens, we may absorb political messages but we also recognise the ways in which they are spun. The calculation behind each political move is analysed by journalists perhaps more even than policy itself. We see the hand of the image-maker and, by and large, we disapprove. Politics is a grubby business and the men of whom Harding writes, the pioneering “alpha dogs” of the firm Sawyer Miller, now feel guilty for having helped to make it more so. Disenchantment with democracy is the backdrop to their tale. As Scott Miller, an erstwhile copywriter and one of the founding partners in the group alongside David Sawyer, originally a documentary film-maker, comments: “We helped to make politics more crass.”

Yet as the men who would coalesce around Sawyer Miller in the 1980s honed their trade in the preceding decade, they were driven not by cynicism but by idealism. They believed in a new “electronic democracy” which would empower voters and challenge old party elites. They were thrill-seekers and adventurers, drawn by the lure of making money and making a difference; clever raconteurs and bon viveurs who were convinced the spunk of advertising and the wisdom of psychology could be applied to winning elections.

Sawyer Miller – monogamously Democratic in America – never once backed a candidate who made it to the White House (although several of its staff would go on to work for Bill Clinton in 1992 and then help the Labour Party to get elected in Britain by persuading it to eschew the doctrinaire left). Nonetheless they helped forge a prodigious modern industry, had greater global reach than any of their rivals and, importantly, reached deep into the world of business.

It was Mark McKinnon, a Sawyer Miller staffer who went on to run the advertising campaigns for George W Bush in 2000 and in 2004, who coined the phrase “alpha dogs.” Harding pinpoints its ambivalence, hinting as it does “at the brilliant and the dastardly, the inspiring and the manipulative,” and he betrays both relish and revulsion as he introduces us to a cast of men adept at qualitative polling, drafting simple messages and “going negative.”

The central figure is Sawyer, a suave New England aristocrat and New York clubman who we first meet cutting his teeth on television spots for the opposition Social Christians in oil-rich Venezuela in 1972. Sawyer and his associates learned their trade as they went along, both at home and abroad. In 1978 they engineered the re-election of Boston’s unloved mayor Kevin White by portraying his opponent, Joe Timilty, as lightweight. In 1984, the Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale proved to be unelectable as he refused to respond to the revolution in leadership wrought by Ronald Reagan. And Shimon Peres was another politician who failed to grasp the new personality politics being urged upon him.

Sawyer Miller’s breakthrough overseas was to come in 1985 with the ousting of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. The successful portrayal of Cory Aquino, in her own words “a housewife”, as a totem of peaceful democratic revolution, opened doors for the firm around the globe and in 1988 they assisted in the overthrow of Augusto Pinochet in Chile.

Ultimately, however, the company lost its way as it became less and less scrupulous about who it supported. In the early 1990s it was tarred by association with governments in countries with records of serious human rights abuses, including Nigeria and Panama. It had also lost its soul, according to some staff, by involving itself in time-consuming work for corporate clients, often companies being investigated for fraud. Miller left and Sawyer was ousted by a group of four senior executives, who then went on to sell the company into a merger with an advertising firm. And they went on merging it with other agencies until they had built the biggest public relations company in the world: Weber Shandwick. As Harding notes, in little over a dozen years, Sawyer Miller made the journey from the idealistic to the banal.

Spin doctors have long since joined our political elites. If Harding teaches us anything it is that they are also now incumbents of a sort. The nature of what displaces them may well dictate the future of democracy.