Two Women Abuse a Gray Lady

Two women, writing about two other women, in the New York Times — what could possibly go wrong?

Note that I didn’t ask what should go wrong. Obviously, nothing should. The Times has historically been among the world’s most prestigious newspapers. Its writers, male or female, are invariably experienced, educated, and articulate. The article in question (archive link), discussing issues that threaten to divide Germany and Britain, should have provided a straightforward treatment of international events.

Instead, unfortunately, the authors took off in a different direction, from these opening words:

In another era they could have been allies.

Both vicars’ daughters and born just a few years apart, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain share an understated pragmatism and conservative roots, and have made their way in the still largely man’s world of politics. But there could be so much more.

At a time when President Trump is lashing out at friend and foe, and when the macho politics of strongmen is resurgent from Moscow to Manila, when not just the European Union but high-minded Western values, free trade and security alliances are under attack, the two women might have worked together to defend the liberal global order.

So we have the contrast: the “largely man’s world of politics,” with its nutty Donald Trump and its macho strongmen, prevents these two understated, pragmatic female leaders from working together to defend the liberal global order.

What a strange beginning. I knew that Brexit and the refugee problem were dividing public opinion in Britain and Germany. I just didn’t know what the writers of this article know: that those issues tell a tale of good women being held back by bad men.

Times readers might (or perhaps, these days, might not) have appreciated coverage oriented more toward facts and less toward feminist fantasy. Consider Merkel’s internationalism and, especially, what many consider her “historic error” of allowing virtually open immigration to migrants (The Telegraph, 2016). In sharp contrast against that, reputable journalism would seem to call for unbiased attention to May’s “staunchly” anti-immigration and isolationist views (The Independent, Glover, 2016). How, exactly, would this deeply conservative leader have “worked together” with Merkel “to defend the liberal global order”? How are macho male leaders in other countries responsible for the gaping chasm between these women’s political views?

The title of the article gets it right: “Split by ‘Brexit,’ May and Merkel Diverge on Wider Issues, Too.” But what happens when you open the box and look inside? Our authors, Mses. Bennhold and Smale, explain that Brexit “is hindering [May and Merkel] from cooperating on the broader issues.” I’m confused: they “diverge” on “wider” issues, but they are being hindered from “cooperating” on “broader” issues. I guess the idea is that they would ideally cooperate, except they abhor each other’s political views, but they find it in their interests to try anyway, and in fact are doing so, and this is something that male leaders wouldn’t do. Or, correction, they are trying except when “Mrs. May [is] shown the door” due to complete disagreement with Merkel on the topic of threats facing Europe. Yes, these definitely seem like women who “could have been allies” in “another era.” Or, perhaps, another universe.

Rosa Prince, biographer of Ms. May, is quoted as saying that Ms. May was “the last woman standing after all the men got burned or ran away.” We have the image of a stalwart survivor who endures while men flee. But what on Earth is Ms. Prince talking about? May defeated Michael Gove in the contest for leadership of the Conservative Party. He didn’t run away; he didn’t get burned; he just got beat. Maybe Prince had something more in mind, but the authors don’t consider it important enough to explain. It appears they just wanted an opportunity to insert a snarky remark about men, and leave it at that.

But at least in that instance the authors do cite Prince as their source. Not so with their claim that unnamed “officials close to the chancellor say” that Merkel considers May “the ‘grown-up’ in the British government.” Really? Some number of senior German officials used, literally, that quoted term — they called May the “grown-up”? Anything is possible. But it seems unlikely that multiple German diplomats or political figures close to Merkel would gratuitously disparage people throughout “the British government,” in favor of this woman, May, whose views are so sharply different from Merkel’s on so many important issues.

Generally, the article favors a sex-based double standard. Amid a number of gratuitous insults to men, the authors suddenly become sensitive about potentially legitimate complaints against women. For instance, they accuse a male politician of “condescension and outright misogyny” because he once said that May is “a bloody difficult woman.” I was not aware that we are not allowed to speak critically of female politicians — nor that it is politically incorrect to describe a woman as difficult, or even as bloody difficult, when Angela Merkel herself might agree.

The politics of the article are actually rather remarkable. The authors seem to view men, not May, as the problem — even when May is the one who supports the attitudes and behaviors criticized in their own opening remarks. Bennhold and Smale offer no critique of the facts that May “rushed to be the first foreign leader received by Mr. Trump after he took office,” seemed “pleased to be caught on camera holding his hand,” “waffled in her judgment” of Trump’s ban on travel from certain Middle Eastern countries, and overlooks repression by Turkey’s strongman Recep Erdogan. The authors seem to excuse all this as May’s “sometimes clumsy diplomacy.”

Meanwhile, not missing an opportunity to indulge sex-based hostility, Bennhold and Smale turn to Merkel’s biographer, Evelyn Roll. Observing that Merkel has been known as “Mutti, the mother of the nation,” Roll says, “The only way men can process that a woman is in power is apparently to liken her to their mother.” Nothing hostile toward men in that statement, right? And yet being called “mother of the nation” would put her in a league with Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and Indira Gandhi. How would that be bad? Would men really consider those women to be like their own mothers? How many guys consider George Washington the father of our country because he reminds them of their dads?

If the authors of this New York Times article had been interested in communicating clearly, rather than scoring petty sex-based zingers, they would have left out the pseudo-psychology about how men react to a woman in power. Instead, they would have explained that Merkel is called Mutti because she does present herself as a mothering type of individual. There is a hint of this in the article itself, which quotes May as acknowledging that “people . . . are a bit dismissive, perhaps because of the way [Merkel] looks and dresses.” And perhaps also because of the way she behaves. Der Speigel (Kurbjuweit, 2009) cites the example of an instance when Merkel chided a government official, ten years her senior, for not dressing more warmly on a cold day.

People seem to like Merkel’s behavior. According to the Daily Mail (Linning, 2014), “Mutti” was “more popular than ever,” prior to her policy mistake on immigration. Here, again, the logic of Bennhold and Smale is not too clear. Do they expect us to overlook the fact that Merkel presents herself as a mothering type of person, even if that’s what has helped her to win elections? After complaining about male chest-thumping, are they criticizing men for having positive impressions of who moms are and what they do? Do the authors think it demeans a woman to display awareness and concern for someone’s well-being? Is it just inconvenient, for these authors, that a world leader’s old-fashioned mothering departs from their concept of feminism?

Taken together, this is a lot of unexpected baggage, in an article that was supposed to be about the split between May and Merkel on national-level issues facing Britain and Germany. In response, perhaps it will be helpful to offer a suggestion. If you want to write a biographical piece about interactions between female leaders, fine — just label it that. Likewise if you want to write an editorial about misogyny in politics. But if you set forth an intention to write straight-up New York Times journalism about international economics and politics, on topics like Brexit, you really should leave the bitterness of your personal intimate relationships at home.

Not to deny that women could advance a very different concept of what counts, or should count, as “straight-up journalism” on such matters. But I doubt there is good research demonstrating that this article exemplifies a superior approach. It seems not to. If anything, it seems to disserve women, insofar as it suggests that female journalism entails an idiosyncratic departure from factual analysis. On one hand, we have reporting on international events; and then, on the other hand, we have this uninspiring muddle, this echo chamber, alien to readers who have reasonable and fairly settled expectations of an article with this sort of headline. This article fails to provide Times-caliber international news reporting — and it fails because it prioritizes feminist sexism over getting the job done.

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