On being nasty to the ‘first lady’ (not)

In today’s Observer the columnist Catherine Bennett makes a spiteful attack on Sarah Brown, the prime minister’s wife, principally for her failure to denounce the practice of female genital mutilation when she spoke briefly to introduce her husband before his main speech at last week’s Labour Party conference.  You might, I suppose, agree with Ms Bennett that there is indeed no mention to be found in the transcript of Mrs Brown’s mini-warmup of this most regrettable practice.  Mrs Brown neither recommended it, nor denounced it.  Whether the omission was attributable to carelessness, or to a conscious desire to distract the conference’s attention from the whole subject of female genital mutilation, one can only guess.

In the comments on Ms Bennett’s column in Comment is Free, the house blog of the Guardian and the Observer, an acute person called (a little improbably) ‘AllyF’ observed  —

Erm, maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t this a bit like yelling at a shoebox for not being a bicycle?

What is Sarah Brown meant to have done? (Apart from inducing an emetic epidemic with her ‘hero’ spiel last week, of course.)

I don’t think she’s ever claimed to be some radical feminist activist, has she? Is there any hypocrisy here? Any deception or dishonesty?

I’m sure there are lots of issues on which she has never spoken out. Has she ever made a stand against the barbaric practice of dog fighting? What about the hidden problem of elder abuse in our care homes? The suffering of ebola victims in North Africa? The ubiquity of Strictly Come sodding Dancing on BBC “news” programmes? All serious issues, so why hasn’t she spoken out on those?

Look, I’m all in favour of taking the strongest possible action, and issuing the strongest possible condemnations on issues like FGM, honour killing and forced marriage. If you’ve actually got any bright ideas how to stop these things happening Catherine, maybe you could use your column to let us know. I’m sure Harriet would be very interested.

In the meantime, I’m not quite sure why you’re picking on Sarah Brown.

Catherine Bennett deserves every word of that.  Well said, AllyF, whoever you are.

Others have pointed out the incorrect use of ‘brutalised’ in the sub-heading of Catherine Bennett’s column: “Suddenly, Sarah Brown loves the limelight – so why won’t she condemn the plight of brutalised women?”  Have the women subjected to brutality really been turned into brutes themselves?  But let’s be generous, for once, and assume that the sub-heading was the work of an Observer teen-age sub-editor on work experience.

However, it gets worse.  A glaring factual error shone out from the second sentence of Ms Bennett’s column, which, before turning the spotlight on the hapless Sarah Brown, begins:

Cherie Blair: an apology. On a number of occasions this column has contributed to criticism of the former first lady, to the effect that her relish for the perks and visibility of her office was matched only by her towering lack of dignity.

This howler was picked up, predictably, in a couple of other comments on the web version of the column.  I added my own pennyworth:

Others have correctly pointed out in their comments that Cherie Blair was never Britain’s (or anyone else’s, apart presumably from her husband’s) ‘first lady’, any more than the admirable Sarah Brown is the ‘first lady’ now — not because it’s an Americanism, but because it’s the term used for the wife of a head of state (or for the head of state herself if she’s a woman), not for the wife of a head of government such as Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. Our head of state and ‘first lady’ is the Queen.

But this was by no means the worst defect in a notably malicious attack on a perfectly harmless, rather likeable, even quite admirable Sarah Brown. What harm has Mrs Brown ever done to Catherine Bennett to deserve such an irrational and gratuitous mauling? How much does Ms Bennett get paid to write this unpleasant rubbish every week?

I suggested in an earlier post here that in spite of everything, you sometimes have to feel sorry for Gordon Brown.  Now, thanks to her wholly unmerited face-scratching at the hands, or nails, of Catherine Bennett, you have to feel sorry for Mrs Brown, too.


3 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    I’m reasonably sure that AllyF is Ally Fogg, a radical journalist & a thoroughly good bloke.

    Brian writes: Great detective work, Phil; thanks. Also see links to his articles here.

  2. Michael Hornsby says:

    Brian – I think you do protest too much and, uncharacteristically, caricature what Ms Bennett says in the process. Perhaps, in rushing to Mrs B’s defence your were acting out of a commendable, but misplaced, sense of gallantry? If so, I can sympathise there.  Mrs B had always struck me as a most likeable and attractive woman (if one can still pay such a compliment without being accused of “sexism”),  who conducted herself with a poise and dignity when called upon to escort the prime minister that was a credit to her country and attested her husband’s good taste and judgement at least when it came to the choice of a wife (though, according to a recent radio programme, it was Neil Kinnock who told GB to marry her). I say “had struck me” because Mrs B, in her early period as the PM’s wife, showed a sensible resolve to stay out of the limelight. Now she is “twittering” online in the manner of  a vacuous, gushing airhead which I am sure, in reality, she is not, and making toe-curlingly embarrassing speeches of the kind with which she introduced her husband in Brighton.  That sort of thing is fine (just about) after a few drinks before friends at a private party to celebrate a spouse’s birthday or a wedding anniversary but nowhere else. I cannot imagine it was Mrs Brown’s choice to start putting herself about in this way, and can only assume that she must unwisely have allowed herself  to be talked into it by the No 10 spin machine as a desperate ploy to make her husband seem more like a normal human being. (It’s true the Obamas also go in for this sort of thing, though it must be said that they do it with some style. They also have the excuse that Mr Obama is both head of state and head of government, and that the president, his wife and their children are to some extent regarded by the American public as an ersatz royal family and as such expected to put their private life on display in this way.)

    I doubt that Ms Bennett would be my cup of tea, nor I hers. And there is, I would allow, some confusion in her argument: she seems to be criticising Mrs B for abandoning her early policy of staying out of the limelight and also for failing to use her position to speak out publicly on feminist matters that Ms Bennett deems of importance. However, I have carefully read her article and cannot see how she can reasonably be construed as suggesting, as you contend, that Mrs B should have included a denunciation of female circumcision/genital mutilation in the brief remarks introducing her husband to the Labour Conference, which would indeed have been ridiculous. On any fair reading, she was commenting in general on the failure or reluctance, in her view, of women in prominent positions to denounce the gross abuse of women’s rights represented by such things as genital mutilation, honour killings and many aspects of sharia law because they were afraid of being accused of denigrating non-western cultures and by extension of opening themselves to charges of racism. Taking a public stand on such issues,  she is saying, would be a better way for such women to use the public platform their position affords them than prattling embarrassingly about their husband’s hygiene habits.   You may or may not agree with Ms Bennett about that. I happen to think she has a goodish case to make and that multi-cultural “political correctness” has become a serious restraint on free speech and free debate. For the rest, you make an undue song-and-dance about her use of the term “first lady” – silly, I agree, but trivial – and wrongly convict her (or the Observer headline writers) of misuse of the word “brutalise”. The transitive verb “to brutalise” has two meanings: 1. to make brutal by repeated exposure to violence, and 2. to treat brutally (I refer you to the eleventh edition (revised) of  the Concise Oxford English Dictionary). In context, Ms Bennett is clearly using the second meaning.

    Brian writes: Michael, for once we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Catherine Bennett’s article placed her complaint about the omission of anything on female genital mutilation squarely in the context of Sarah Brown and her conference speech; I find it impossible to read it as an unrelated generalisation as you suggest. Numerous comments posted on the online edition of the article read it in precisely the same way as myself. You yourself identify the inherent contradiction between complaining on the one hand that Mrs Brown has emerged from the background into the political foreground, and on the other hand that she isn’t campaigning against female genital mutilation. Sarah Brown is obviously a major asset of her husband’s and the suggestion that she should resume the role of the shy, unobtrusive, silently admiring little woman strikes me as — well, quaint, at best. I happen to enjoy her lively and sensible Twitter tweets and I thought her praise in her Brighton remarks of her husband’s qualities a rather touching antidote to the current misrepresentation of him as an obstinate, dithering, humourless ogre. As for ‘brutalise’, the second dictionary definition which you quote is, of course, like all dictionary definitions descriptive of actual usage, not prescriptive of correct usage: all it tells us is that others besides Ms Bennett have misused the word, whose proper meaning should be obvious. The full online OED, the ultimate authority, quotes only two examples of ‘brutalize’ — with a ‘z’, incidentally — in Ms Bennett’s sense, from 1879 and 1885 respectively, and the second of these is ambiguous anyway. So on all counts I’m unrepentant!

  3. Michael Hornsby says:

    Brian – I fear you’re right. We will just have to agree to disagree. I’ve read Ms Bennett’s article again, and I can find no sentence in it in which the author says in terms that Sarah Brown should have made some reference to female genital mutilation in her warm-up remarks introducing her husband. If you can point me to such a sentence, please do so. It seems clear to me, as I said earlier, that Ms Bennett is commenting in general terms on what she asserts,  rightly or wrongly, to be the failure/unwillingess of Sarah B and other “ladies who lunch” (a silly vogue phrase, admittedly) to use the platforms their public positions afford them to speak out against the evils she mentions. You might reasonably interpret this to mean that,  in Ms Bennett’s view, Sarah Brown should have declined the request to open the Brighton proceedings with her toe-curling “isn’t my husband wonderful” gush and should instead have asked to be allowed to address the delegates on the feminist issues at some point in the conference proper. But that is a rather different thing. The idea that Sarah Brown should have launched into an impassioned condemnation of fermalr genital mutilation in the midst of  a few personal introductory remarks welcoming her husband to the podium is patently absurd, and there is nothing to support it anywhere in the article. I respectfully suggest that you did not like the tone of Ms Bennett’s article,  that your natural gallantry was affronted by what you took to be its “spiteful attack” on a woman you admire, and that in reaction you chose to interpret it in the most absurd way possible so as to make it seem ridiculous. I cannot of course rule out that in next Sunday’s Observer  Ms Bennett will offer a defence of her article which confirms your interpretation of its meaning in every last particular, in which case I will promptly acknowledge that Ms Bennett is indeed as silly as you say she is,  admit defeat and retire gracefully from the fray. Watch this space.

    I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that Sarah Brown “should resume the role of the shy, unobtrusive and silently admiring little woman”. I wouldn’t in any case recognise that as an accurate description of how she has behaved at any point,  but even if it were accurate,  I have to say that I do not find the role now being thrust upon her – that of  gushing,  obtrusive and loudly admiring little woman – any sort of  improvement. It can’t be much fun being a PM’s spouse in any circumstances. The trick seems to be to find a way of remaining your own person and getting on with your own life as far as you can while performing when required the unavoidable public duties that come with the position with as much good grace as you can muster. Sarah Brown seemed to manage that balance pretty well during her early months at No 10.  Norma Major made a fair fist of it, as, in his own idiosyncratic way, did Denis Thatcher, by retiring to the golf course and making sure that his no doubt embarrassingly disreputable and improper opinions on all manner of subjects did not pass beyond the circle of his  G&T-swilling cronies at the 19th hole. One can only hope that the sensible-looking Mrs Cameron will not allow herself in due course to  be drawn into the public hubby-boosting game, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

    On the misuse of “brutalis/ze” and correct and incorrect usage: Why do I have a strong sense that we’ve been here before? I must say that I admire the sheer chutzpah of your assertion that  “the second dictionary definition [of ‘brutalise’ – ‘to treat brutally’] … is, of course, like all dictionary definitions descriptive of actual usage, not prescriptive of correct usage: all it tells us is that others besides Ms Bennett have misused the word, whose proper meaning should be obvious”.  If  “all dictionary definitions are descriptive of actual usage, not prescriptive of correct usage”, then this must in logic be equally true of the first dictionary definition of “brutalise” [to make brutal by exposure to violence].  How do we then know that only the first  definition is the correct one?  The answer appears to be: because Brian Barder says so.  The truth, as so often in this area, is that this is not a matter of correct or incorrect usage but of personal linguistic taste. As it happens, my taste happens to coincide with yours here: in the interests of clarity I would not use “brutalise” in the second sense lest it be confused with the first and give rise to ambiguity. I would prefer a paraphrase such as “to treat brutally”. But it is only our preference, however superior we may consider our preference to be. I would not of course deny that there is such a thing as correct and incorrect usage: English orthography has long been standardised and, with only a few exceptions, there is only one correct way of spelling English words; there are rules of grammar, such as the need for a plural subject to govern a plural verb, or that you should not write “he” when the context requires “him”, for all of which clear and unassailably logical reasons can be adduced. But much of what we call “usage” is merely a matter of taste. And, at any given moment in the evolution of a living language, correct usage cannot in the end be much more precisely defined than as that which the majority of educated people would accept as correct.  Would such a majority agree with your and my preference re “brutalise”? Possibly. Possibly not.

    Brian writes: What can I say? Of course there’s no specific sentence in the Bennett assault on Mrs Brown which expressly condemns her for failing to adress the problem of female genital mutilation in her conference address: but I think I’m entitled to infer from the context that this was the burden of her song. As for brutalise, or brutalize, we have indeed been here before. I persist in holding that the literate have a solemn duty to defend the careful and sensitive use of our language and to resist the encroachment of bad usage right up until its waves close over our heads. The very formation of the word shows that it must mean “to make brutal” (infantilise = to make infantile, fertilise = to make fertile, sensitise = to make sensitive, etc. etc.). Ms Catherine Bennett, who presumably makes her living by writing, ought not to connive at this corruption of the language by which she lives, and I claim the right to say so!

    At least I’m glad that you admire my chutzpah.

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