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Burka-clad women walk in the old city of Kabul (AFP/Getty) 

A while ago, a BBC producer phoned to tell me I had written a "controversial" book. I knew that already, and gathered from the teeth-sucking sound coming down the line that she did not approve.

"So," she continued, "we've lined up four guests to argue against you." 

I told her to go away — maybe I used a stronger term — and then thought about her predicament. As a biased broadcaster, she wanted to hear my book denounced, but she could not risk organising a one-on-one debate. Maybe I would have come out on top. More probably, some listeners would have agreed with me, others with my opponent, as is the normal way of things. By arranging her show to make it four against one, however, she could maintain the illusion of impartiality while creating the impression in listeners' mind that the consensus was overwhelmingly against arguments she found uncomfortable. In the interests of "balance" and of letting "everyone have their say", she would fill 80 per cent of the airtime with advocates of her own political position. I have watched out for rigged debates ever since. They are the surest signal the BBC dares send that an idea does not deserve a hearing in polite society. 

Ophelia Benson did not quite get the four-on-one treatment when she appeared on Radio 3's cultural talk show Nightwaves to discuss a "controversial" book she has co-authored with Jeremy Stangroom. They gave her a mere two opponents, and the presenter tried to be fair. Still, when one adversary stopped disparaging her, the other started, as the BBC flashed warning signs to listeners to ignore her.

If they missed the point, the press banged it home. The Independent denounced Benson and Stangroom "as inflammatory in the extreme"; authors who produce "torrents of invective" and "show no desire to go beyond name-calling and distortion." The Guardian accused them of "crudeness and lack of insight". It was "staggered anyone wanted to publish" them, and concluded that only a base desire to make money could explain the release of a "profoundly intellectually dishonest", "hysterical" and "bizarre" work. My own newspaper, the Observer, was slightly more temperate, but not so the casual reader would notice. Benson and Stangroom were not original thinkers but had "trawled through newspaper articles". They "splutter with righteous anger", their style "clunky", "hammering" and "repetitive", their arguments "flimsy" and "deadening".

Readers who imagine that Benson and Stangroom were on the receiving end of the fullest stomach-load of bile literary London has brought up this year because they were making the case for white supremacy or the return of the death penalty do not understand the dark turn Western thought took between the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Benson and Stangroom's book is Does God Hate Women?, which the predecessors of today's critics would have hailed as a feminist classic.

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August 30th, 2009
5:08 PM
you're a magnificent writer (here as in so much of your work) mr cohen, and i am grateful we have you.

August 30th, 2009
3:08 PM
Of course the invasion of Iraq (which Cohen supported) did so much for women's rights. Women who opposed the war such as Cindy Sheehan and the Dixie Chicks came in for the full blast of misogyny from Cohen's hero Christopher Hitchens. Indeed Hitchens called them "f***ing fat slags". Finally, does Cohen consider the possibility that the Benson and Stangroom book got universally bad reviews because it is very bad book? Instead he peddles a bizarre conspiracy theory involving the literary editors of the broadsheet press. (Cohen's latest pot-boiler got a similar panning, so I detect a personal motive at work here.)

Ross Burns
August 29th, 2009
1:08 PM
This is serious stuff; and nowhere in this essay is there anything but someone throwing his intelligence in with the need for women to have better lives all over the world.

August 28th, 2009
8:08 PM
These people are cowards. The reason they won't speak in favor of the oppressed is because then they might have actually do something about the oppression. And, gee, what do you suppose we'd have to do to gain Islamic women the rights they deserve?

August 28th, 2009
6:08 PM
It seems to me that what you are describing is that men - a large number of them worldwide - hate women. Men 'invented' and 'police' god, ie religion, the religion itself is usually capable of being flexible. It's the way it is used for power, politics and control of women that is unacceptable. Any religion. So, guys, what are you going to do about it?

Tina Trent
August 27th, 2009
7:08 PM
It sounds that what the world needs now, primarily, is for "former Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips" to stop calling for "Sharia at the East London Mosque." Next, all the male lawyers can take equal responsibility with the female ones for calling for equality, and the columnists who imagine all of feminist liberation in terms of the tiny fraction of white females (ie. families) who have domestic help can actually check real demographics and also check with their non-feminist peers to survey the prevalence and race and income of their help before making presumptions about cause and effect. I know exactly no women with domestic help, and I know many, many, many people who otherwise fit the description. Caitlin Flanagan needs to put down her little mirror before taking up her little pen, and Germaine Greer has cabbage for brains: they represent precious little beyond their own neuroses and small portions of very select zip codes (well, Greer is on her own). On the other hand, you hit the hammer on the head in your last few paragraphs about the real reason why feminists remain silent but go no further to hypothesizing whether others remain silent for the same reason, which in that case would be a worse reason because they're relying on misdirection and scapegoating. You propose a radical feminist movement that can rise above accusations of racism? This article is an object lesson in the thin chances of that.

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