Loosening grip – a breath of air

Prince Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte – nephew of the Emperor Napoléon – was elected as the first President of France in 1848. History Today has the story – and it’s an interesting one, inasmuch as it contains pre-echoes of the most recent presidential elections … not only the French one, but also the American one. According to Richard Cavendish, Louis Napoleon “won one of the most remarkable victories in French history, though he had never held public office or distinguished himself in any worthwhile capacity.” Some considered him an ass; others called him a cretin. Cavendish reports that “Karl Marx sourly remarked that because Louis Napoleon was nothing, he could appear to be everything.” (Cavendish, 1998)

Macron and his wife, sourced from CNN, 12 May, 2017.

Macron and his wife, sourced from CNN, 12 May, 2017.

Aged forty years and eight months, Louis Napoleon was the youngest French president to assume office. That’s now no longer the case, of course: France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, is 39. And his wife, Brigitte Trogneux, is 64. (“Emmanuel Macron,” 2017)

Macron’s victory was welcomed with a sigh of relief in Europe, according to the Financial Times, which offered analysis indicating that wealthier, better-educated, and optimistic voters had preferred Macron. In his victory speech, Mr Macron told the crowd Europe and the world were “watching us” and “waiting for us to defend the spirit of the Enlightenment, threatened in so many places”. See Sky News, 2017 (“World leaders react to Macron’s election win,” 2017)

But the election left the nation deeply divided. Pledging to “guarantee unity”, President Macron acknowledges he faces an immense task ahead. He plans to invest in job training, farming, transport, infrastructure, and healthcare. He intends to push for public service modernisation, greater efficiency in the health sector, and cuts to local authority spending. In contrast to Marine Le Pen, Macron does not envisage a France that shuts out immigrants and asylum seekers.

Both Macron and Le Pen represent outsider movements. In choosing Macron, an independent and a centrist, voters have turned their backs on the traditional conservatives and socialists – the Republicans, the National Front, the Socialist party, and La France insoumise (France unbowed). “France offers an extreme case of the populist wave against governing elites that is sweeping many nations,” explains Jonah D Levy, writing in the Washington Post. In short, it is the French establishment that has been rejected. And it would be a mistake for that establishment to view Macron’s win as evidence that they have avoided what unfolded for the UK and the US. (Levy, 2017)

David Cameron – Britain’s Prime Minister at the time of Brexit – had called the referendum with the intention of strengthening his political grip. Cameron didn’t want to leave the EU. The establishment of the day told itself there was no way the UK would leave the EU. The outcome was a total shock.

Broadly speaking, the result is explained in one of two ways. The first expresses a deep resentment of the migrants who have come to live in Britain. It is immigrants, we are told, who are responsible for lack of jobs, the escalating cost of living, and the dilution and pollution of British culture. It is seen as vital that Britain leave the EU. The voice for this anti-immigrant line was Nigel Farage, the driver of Ukip’s Brexit battle bus. A second explanation, and the one this blog favours, is that issues like employment and housing are social problems, responsibility for which rests with the establishment of the day. The real reason for the social and political complaints – Neoliberal politics – remains to be addressed.

On his Brexit tour of the UK, Jeremy Corbyn promised a Labour government would deliver a “a jobs first Brexit.” (Agerholm, 2017) His view is more complex than simply a yes or no to continued membership of the EU – and he has thus at times viewed Europe as a bit of a riddle.

Corbyn has consistently argued against the economic and political view that says “free market at all costs”. In 2015, he was unhappy with how the EU was handling the grinding austerity enforced upon Greece. He had wanted to build bridges with Europe in order to give support for labour – common workers’ rights, poverty reduction, and welfare. That outlook could be seen as a reason to stay in the EU – not leave. As things have worked out, Corbyn is embracing the decision to leave. Notice how a response to the austerity attitudes could just as easily have informed the view, “If that’s how you treat the labour force, I want nothing to do with such behaviour” – a reason to leave the EU.

Social and political change is not the product of disaffected white males inspired by violent right wing ideologies. Traditional Marxist theory argued the agents of social change were the proletariat – the working class. In sociology and economics, people suffering a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material and psychological welfare, have been dubbed the precariat. What is in front of us now is a new proletariat, a new group without an independent identity – and they are looking for a political voice. This is the subject of Guy Standing’s book, The Precariat. Recent events in the UK and America point to this nascent group’s struggle to shape the future. (Standing, 2016)

The explanation I’m offering here is unorthodox – but it is not an effort to say something radically new. I’m being loyal to a framework of ideas and perspectives that seems to have been pushed to one side in favour of notions that owe more to emotion and moral outrage than to facts. The reader might recall Stanley Cohen’s foundation text, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, published in 1972 and based on research he had carried out during the 1960s. I’m arguing that we haven’t yet finished with the sixties and seventies – and nor have we lost hope in the possibilities and aspirations envisaged in those days. (Cohen, 2011)

French philosopher Alain Badiou uses the term ‘event’ when discussing the idea of truth and truth-telling. (Badiou & Feltham, 2007) He argues that truth breaks through, interrupting the flow of history, insisting we see something, even briefly. For him, the loyalty to that event is central to truth-telling. My reading of Badiou is that he is a Marxist and that he wants to ground his thinking in an historical view. So for him, and for me, truth-telling incorporates both a remembering and a re-experiencing. Marxism insists on a loyalty to emancipation – primarily economic and social, but also sexual. The discourse here is not about sex, but about culture. The political and social battles in the UK, France, and America – and indeed, in New Zealand – are cultural battles. The hard left wants to make a big thing of gender, safe spaces, and legislated language (see Jordan Peterson and his stand in a Canadian university), but I’m viewing these things within a broader and deeper context. (Peterson, 2017)

The irony is that the media don’t seem to be serving us well; I view the newsmongers as pro-establishment, and pro-business. What they offer is a version of the establishment view, perpetuating the old conversation of identity politics – a crusade against ‘bad men’, under the banner of ‘social justice warriors’. But the players – in America, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, et al – are all caricatures. The narratives in which these characters play out their dramas are supposed to explain why things are the way they are – the good guys and the bad guys. My view differs from this.

I can’t pretend to stand outside the media, as if they have played no role in shaping my views. YouTube, the various news sources, and all kinds of media provide access to information and opinions. The ways in which the business community controls and defines how media functions in Western democracies give the possibility of free speech and, in complicated ways, also undermine it.

Slavoj Žižek saw the US election as a chance for change. “Slavoj Žižek Says He’d Vote Trump: Hillary ‘Is the Real Danger’” said the headline in Breitbart (Hahn, 2016) . Žižek was not pro-Trump; he predicted the Democrats would lose because their chosen leader had links with banks and big business which undermined the party’s ability to point to real change – to step back from Neoliberalism and close the gap between the rich and the poor. Hillary Clinton may well have talked about emancipation for gays and lesbians, an openness to immigrants, and the promotion of liberal agendas. In the end, her words were seen to be superficial.

In America the Democrats, the media, and a large part of the Republican movement regard themselves as the establishment. For this group, the arrival of Donald Trump at the White House has been a shock. The way things work is spelled out in the distinctive style and damaged profile of Donald Trump – the compulsive liar, the fondler of women’s bodies – and the struggle to establish a new, draconian feminism as the determinant of our political future.

Here we see an alliance between the media’s lurid version of current affairs and an emergent faction inside feminism. It is important to note that not all feminist voices are singing these songs. “The progressive, feminist politics of the American campus have become so extreme that they’ve become comical,” says Allum Bokhari in Breitbart (Bokhari, 2016). The headline of this piece reads: “Christina Hoff Sommers and Camille Paglia on Coddled Students and Fainting-Couch Feminists.” It’s not all funny, however; there’s a dark side. Modern identity politics are currently being driven by a third-wave feminist view that is intolerant, and Stalinist.

Sometimes the media, informed by this new ideology, insists on offering us a picture of Donald Trump as the most recent version of the dangerous male – a pussy-grabbing bully, shaped by the business world, but ultimately a woman-hater. As stated above, Slavoj Žižek was not pro-Trump. He advocated voting for Trump because he saw Clinton as the dangerous one.

So now, all three nations are on notice: in Britain, America, and France, people who see themselves as the victims of economic strategies which undermine the future for individuals and families are demanding change. Across western liberal democracies, and at every level, we see people suffering and angry. One can hear such voices within the worlds of the working class, the middle class, and the upper class.

Some French liberals feared their old enemy, the radical right. The old categories of political left and right don’t serve us well in analysing modern liberal democracies. More to the point is the disenfranchisement of a population who have lost their faith in the political process, and fear a future that includes temporary work contracts, ballooning debt, and a sense of disconnection from society and culture.

As was the case in the US, the French media have portrayed things differently, focusing on gender wars, the faults of men, and the rising radicalism of feminist factions – the style one observes here is of Stalinist intolerance, rather than assertive critical thought.

At this point, it might be worth acknowledging this post has devoted more attention than usual to political matters. My intention is in fact focused on the intricately interwoven sociological and cultural aspects of our current situation – hardly surprising, given my training and experience.

Although the French election result is widely regarded as good news, some have expressed concern – not about the flavour of Emmanuel Macron’s politics, but about the fact that his current partner, Brigitte Trogneux, was once a teacher at his former high school, where she ran the drama club. The young Emmanuel’s parents sent him to Paris to put a distance between the precocious fifteen-year-old and his drama teacher. Interestingly, two years later Emmanuel declared that she would one day be his wife. (Jordan, 2017)

These facts alter the way we interpret the simple observation that the age gap for the French couple is almost exactly the same as that between Donald Trump and his wife Melania – although in that instance the differential is the other way around.

There are indications that for some at least, age gaps are no big deal. Quoted in a pre-election story that appeared widely – including in the US, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand – Martine Bergossi, a Paris retailer, gives her view: “Why can’t we marry younger men? I date them all the time.” Mary Jordan, the Paris-based writer of the article, remarks, “[Macron is] a candidate young enough to be his wife’s son.”

The Sydney Morning Herald ran Mary Jordan’s story under a headline that highlighted “the social revenge factor” which the story, intending to offer its readers a little titillation, claimed delighted many French women – including Martine Bergossi – and added “a little ooh-la-la” to the presidential campaign.

It crosses my mind to wonder: Is this fresh focus on age disparate relationships something out of the blue? Does it perhaps offer an opportunity for change? But then I am reminded that this sort of thing is in fact not new. Wikipedia offers a discussion of age disparity and the ‘half your age plus seven’ rule of thumb, admitting that “Although the origin of the rule is unclear, it is sometimes considered to have French origin.” (“Age disparity in sexual relationships,” 2017)

The media are certainly not neutral on this matter. Over recent years, the opinion shapers have been reinforcing popular culture, emphasizing talk of the need to shift to more age appropriate couplings, and urging punitive hard-line condemnation of relationships which break the rule. But age disparate relationships have been de-facto ‘normal’ for a very long time, and while all the talk of age appropriateness unfolds, in the real world other stuff happens.

Some of my readers might at this point be asking: What about same sex couples? But there’s no talk here of two males or two females. In 2015, I posted a piece titled, “Still breaking rules, but that’s okay”, which discussed the relationship between Stephen Fry (at the time, 57) and his partner, Elliot Spencer (then 27). Stephen Fry boxed clever with this message, I believe, by publishing two volumes of memoirs, in which he dealt frankly with all the ‘stuff’ about himself. “This is me, like it or lump it,” he seemed to be saying. (Hooper, 2015)

Interestingly, British commentators persisted in talking about him as likely to receive some kind of award or honour, validating his role in British society and culture as a leading voice to be taken seriously. Fry’s recent skirmish with the Irish Catholic establishment over ‘blasphemy’ is just another example of his readiness to push back against the challenges which crop up from time to time – things he regards as tattered emblems of the old establishment, outmoded relics worthy of being unceremoniously dumped. (Bell, 2017).

It is interesting to note both the British couple (Fry and Elliot) and the French couple (Macron and Trogneux) are the recipients of public approbation. This encourages me to suggest again that, at least for now, relationship age gaps are not as important as some might have thought.

Currently I live in a Western liberal democracy. I understand, and value, the contribution pop culture and news media make to our lives. But they are too close to business, and too deeply enmeshed in some of the negative aspects of society. They are part of the establishment that needs to change, an establishment that is in denial, and that resists change. I see the American Democratic party behaving just this way.

Since the election the media has provided endless stories of the evils of Donald Trump, and little acknowledgement that the Democratic party has participated in and contributed to a country where the gap between the rich and the poor has never been greater. On the evening when the American election result became clear Hillary Clinton retreated to her bedroom, refused to acknowledge that outcome, and went to bed. This symbolic act of denial still represents the Democratic party beyond the first 100 days.

Looking at the media’s comparisons of the American couple and the French couple … in both cases, the age difference is roughly the same – about 24 years. Whilst one term for an older man in a relationship of this sort is “silver fox” – or “silver daddy”, in the case of a gay man – it didn’t take long for the Western liberal media to start portraying Donald Trump with a subtext that inferred ‘bad guy’.

For some time now, in media pieces, age appropriate relationships have been couples whose ages were very close, whilst age disparate relationships – sometimes the gap is 20 years or more – were a matter of concern, even suspicion. The ideology of appropriateness spreading through our media seems in fact to be at odds with the choices people make when forming relationships. Nevertheless the promoters of prescriptive views are determined: “we tell it like it is,” they cry.

For many people the media seems more real than their own lives, and their day-to-day experiences less significant. It might be worth questioning the establishment and the media, worth holding them to account for the way things are. What seems to be unfolding is the ‘real’ they promote is being replaced by a real that breaks through. The voices of age gap couples – in Britain, France, and America, in straight worlds and in gay – are being listened to, and are receiving social support. Let’s see where this takes us. Age gaps are not bad by definition, nor are men the source of all that is dark and dangerous. To those whose lives include relationships across generations – men or women, heterosexual or same sex – see yourself as very much ordinary, normal, a valued part of a diverse society. We live in interesting times.

Curiously, the feminists, who regard themselves as liberal, have begun to occupy positions vacated by the old guard – the establishment. They do not approve of Donald Trump, any more than they approve of the flow of unvetted speakers onto University campuses. The prospect of enshrining in legislation a set of rules concerning appropriate and inappropriate pronouns (this is Jordan Peterson again) is of a piece with attempts to restrict who people fall in love with.

There are times when the establishment, with its PC arguments, could do with not merely an update, but a vigorous challenge. Britain, America, and France are really sharing a theme here: the establishment and the media are being given a push back. In the UK it was not really about the immigrants; the establishment had made ordinary people’s lives difficult and voters wanted that to stop. In America, as well, it was less about the bad guy and the angry white males – lots of women supported Trump. No, here too was anti-establishment anger. The Democrats and Clinton had made deals that the American population did not trust. As in Britain, human misery had maxed out.

In France, too, the push-back against the old guard has been accompanied by a sense of fresh hope. Macron wants to rebuild France – reminding me of Donald Trump’s pledge to “make America great again”.

These days, in a Western liberal democratic setting, people often can’t imagine that a sexually expressed intergenerational friendship can be regarded as positive – “it’s just not on”. An adult in such a relationship can’t be doing a good thing or being a good person. Asked why, many people would find it difficult to explain. For those who look at both how we talk and what we talk about, there is the notion of “rules of discourse”. Without going into great detail, it can be observed that in terms of discourse, one cannot talk about the emancipation of the minor attracted person and at the same time talk about care of the young. I’m willing to break those rules.

What I’m seeking to comment on here is the rare situation where the rules of that discourse are that you can speak about one or other but not both together. So three couples – Macron and his partner, Trump and his partner, and Stephen Fry and his partner – are being talked about as important and socially valued relationships, and at the same time are age disparate and sexual. The point here is that the discursive rules are obliged to give way to the real. It was ever thus. For many people the view that is considered impossible has become so strongly felt that it is experienced as having always been that way. Factually, it has not. In my thinking, I am not insensitive to people’s strongly held views, but seeing the structure of how those rules have been built up, I’m freer to break them … or perhaps I only need to bend them.

During the 1950s the discourse about “sexual perversions” and psychologically dangerous individuals was conflated with the discourse about homosexuality. Behavioural psychology and its stimulus/response paradigm became the preferred discourse when talking about sexual minorities. The modern gay man and woman have successfully extricated themselves, and as if to not leave this social position vacant, it has been filled by the sex abuser/pedophile. Stanley Cohen, in early editions of his book on Folk Devils, observed that the dangerous individual was the young black male – a threat to the white man’s daughter. It seems to me Cohen’s stereotype has now been replaced by the dangerous middle class white man – the pedophile. 

Deleuze makes a challenging comment regarding modern life and the social position of the person who is labeled mentally ill. Individuals who are ‘marginal’ – as in the case of schizophrenics – can be seduced to live as if they are off to one side, isolated, so different as to belong there. At times the minor attracted person has a similar experience. Deleuze’s advice is to reject that isolation. The way forward is to stress our connectedness to others.

When writing about sexuality and the profile of Stephen Fry and his relationship with Elliot Spencer I offered a similar view. A discourse where one’s urges are the centre of one’s dialogue/interrogation at the hands of those who demand ‘talk’ is problematic.  Minor attracted persons find themselves being told to stop urges and to stop his or her desires as if they are different in kind from everyone else. The truth is they aren’t different – desire as one finds it lodged inside the text of literature and poetry is at the heart of who we are and – for everyone – understanding this is vitally important. The modern gay man and the lesbian in Western culture are no longer interrogated as if they are off to one side – they have been normalised – my view is the minor attracted person needs to stress their connectedness to others, and not allow themselves to be isolated and dehumanised.

Because we are at a time when we are sensitive to or captured by the talk of child abuse and the exploitation of the young, we are being sold the view that “the only way to solve these problems” is we can and must erase all age disparate relationships.

People are being told to manage their sexuality, I would suggest – as if it is only an issue of ‘sexual urges’. It might be more precise to say the targets of these messages are those we are unhappy about. When we view people this way we assume – wrongly, I believe – that we understand them in depth. We are most likely to end up with a better understanding of people – who they are, what they’re about, and how they manage their desires – only if they’re free to talk with us, on their terms. To sharpen this point even more, I argue this is equally true with regard to self-knowledge. What’s on offer right now is, can the view I’m offering here gain a foothold? Can the minor attracted person become someone we dialogue with rather than someone we interrogate?

I argue the establishment, as freshly reconfigured, is making determined efforts to insist their ideological views be the only guides to how we live, and who we choose to live with – and love. Which makes it crucial that we pay attention to our actual choices. I don’t think the hard-line feminists and their Stalinist intolerance will be the last word. What I look forward to is more evidence the 1960s and 70s have indeed not finished with us – and that we will reject hate and vote for love.

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4 thoughts on “Loosening grip – a breath of air

  1. A skilled analysis, Peter – and a calm, non-hysterical one, which is a pleasant rarity in an era of constant outrage. Have informed people on Tom O’Carroll’s blog – they would like to read it!

  2. I like this article’s ambitious attempt to locate public responses to age-disparate sexual relationships within a broad political and cultural context. One problem with such an approach, though, is that it requires engagement with a whole bunch of slippery concepts simultaneously, such as “the establishment”, “left wing”, “right wing”, “liberal”, “progressive”, “middle class”, “working class”, “appropriate”, “inappropriate”, “PC”, “the media”, all of which are in a state of flux and cry out for close scrutiny as to their shifting meanings, if any.

    The difficulty is acknowledged, which is a start, but resort to even more nebulous abstractions such as “the real” threatens to take us further from any firm grasp of what we can seriously take reality to be. More promising, in my view, is the focus on a few concrete data points of reality, namely the age disparate relationships of Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron and Stephen Fry with their respective partners. I find myself left unsure what they really signify, though. The point is made that “The voices of age gap couples – in Britain, France, and America, in straight worlds and in gay – are being listened to, and are receiving social support.” This is presented as “the real” breaking through in defiance of a hegemonic discourse of denunciation.

    There may be something in it. I’d like to think so. The evidence is slim, though, and the high-profile cases in question are only at the mild end of age transgression, so seeing them as harbingers of better things to come may be premature: one swallow, or even three, do not a summer make. What can be asserted with much more confidence, based now on a tsunami of evidence, is that “establishment” thinking, however defined, is indeed under increasing pressure, as Peterhoo says, and as “liberal” political correctness grows ever more hysterically illiberal it is losing its purchase on the imagination of great swathes of the population – including the presumptive beneficiaries of PC. Trump has his supporters among women and even ethnic minorities, his sins of sexism and racism trumped, as it were, by their overriding concern for other values, notably a fair crack of the whip over jobs and income equality. Peterhoo is surely “on the money” on this, although wasn’t it a Clinton who said “It’s the economy, stupid”?

    What we may reasonably hope for, I suggest, is that the gathering storm of popular discontent presages a wider reassessment of values in which, as Peterhoo suggests, a rediscovery of the best aspirations from the 1960s and 70s may well have a part to play. We can do without the irresponsible hedonism of those times but not the emphasis on love and peace.

    • I am in agreement with much of what you offer here Tom. You and I have different ways of speaking I think, and yes my interest in philosophy, psychotherapy, and a range of topics is marked out in how I use words/text differently from how you write. If I step back and look at how many authors of text write currently, I stress not so much certitude and being right as an enjoyment of curiosity, and an approach I used in therapy – the notion of multiple description. There is more than one way to describe a situation, and there are multiple ways to craft a response. You can see how this might be deployed inside therapy; I take this approach into how I live as well. One final comment, I seem to have got you to write a blog on my site – I think this needs to be formalised with a guest piece.

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