Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A woman from hell and a helluva woman

"All of us that grew up under Thatcher were taught that it is good to be selfish, that other people's pain is not your problem, that pain is in fact a weakness and suffering is deserved and shameful."
(From Russell Brand's eloquent article in the Guardian on the passing of Maggie Thatcher)

Yep. That's what I remember.

I keep hearing retrospectives about how strong and wonderful our fearless leader was, but I remember covering the miners' and seamen's strikes as a young reporter. I remember picket lines and soup kitchens, angry rhetoric on both sides, violence, tears, stubbornness, and betrayal. Margaret Thatcher didn't just break the unions; she broke the people. A million of them never worked again.

I remember the clich√© in all its ugly reality: the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, and all of us got a little more selfish--even if we called it something else.

I also remember standing outside the South African embassy with protesters at a time when Nelson Mandela was still rotting in prison and Thatcher was steadfastly refusing to condemn apartheid.

A woman has died, and that's a loss for those who knew and loved her, so for the last couple of days, I've held my tongue and said sorry to the universe each time something snarky rose to mind. But I can't listen to this nonstop outpouring of flattering eulogy anymore without comment.

Does no one remember the hunger strikers that she actually allowed to starve to death? 10 of them? They had families too, but I didn't hear much about them. I only heard the Iron Lady was not for turning.

My point is not to celebrate Mrs Thatcher's death like those who are campaigning to get "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" to number 1 in the British charts. My point is to offer a little qualification to all the eulogizing, a few reminders of the way things were. Our society tends to clean up its dead and whitewash their history, and it's happening again, right before our eyes. The trouble is, if we don't allow history to be what it really is, in all its messy inconsistency, how can we learn anything from it? How can we do better next time a victorious leader offers us fast ways to climb to prosperity on the backs of the very poorest among us?

Margaret Thatcher came to power as I was turning teenage. She stayed in power long enough for her policies to be the focus of some of my work as a young journalist covering the miners' and seamen's strikes. I wasn't watching policies at play in those days. I was watching families go hungry on the picket lines, proud fathers who had been lifelong breadwinners become broken versions of their former selves--sold out both by their own leaders and their government.

It's true, as my friend John points out, that things couldn't go on as they were back in the late seventies. There was a need for more fiscal restraint in government if the country wasn't to go completely broke, and Thatcher turned a tide that likely needed turning. It wasn't popular, and it was probably, in some respects, pretty brave. But my problem with Thatcher's reign (and it was a reign) was a lot to do with the way that she did things--so harshly, so uncompromisingly, even cruelly. I wonder if some of that was possibly fallout from trying to prove herself in such a male world, even though she never admitted that was an issue.

I have been remembering back to those days of riots and strikes. I was the newest reporter on the Dover Express in the early eighties--and for a while the only woman in the entire office who was not a secretary. Some of those men put me through hell trying to find out whether I was up to the job, and it never occurred to me to complain about sexism or harassment. In those days, you just sucked it up and got on with it if you wanted to be in the game. That was the Thatcher way, and though I never saw her as a role model, I went about building my own career pretty much the same way: ask no favors, give no inch, win on merit alone. Though I was never much of a mover or shaker like Mrs T., who rose through the ranks of the Old Boys' Network with a speed and surety that angered and astonished them all, several of those men who put me through hell eventually did answer to me. The very faint parallels were certainly unconscious at the time, but I can see them today, however unwillingly.

Let's be clear: Thatcher never broke the glass ceiling for her sex, whatever the eulogizers may say, and she certainly didn't pave much of a way for the women of my generation in terms of equalizing legislation. What she did was simply refuse to acknowledge the ceiling was even there. She rose right through it like an unsmiling Mary Poppins doppelgänger on steroids, and whether you liked the Iron Lady or loathed her, you couldn't help but assume if she could do it, so could you.

Margaret Thatcher was a woman from hell and a helluva woman. She ignored terrible truths and wrought miraculous change. Though many will speculate, no one but she will ever really know what drove her. People are complicated, motives are messy, and history is an inconsistent muddle. Let's pay it--and Mrs T--the compliment of acknowledging all of it.