Following a UK election where lies loomed large, an open letter has been written to Angus Taylor and other lying conservative politicians by Dr Denise Meyer, a fellow Oxford University alumnus.
ANGUS TAYLOR is Australia's Energy Minister, currently at the UN Climate Change Conference trying to explain away Australia’s use of an accounting loophole to mask its carbon emissions reduction failures. He has been in the news lately for other examples of being “loose with the truth”, including a bizarre public spat with the American feminist Naomi Wolf — over an anecdote where he falsely linked her with a “war” against political correctness involving Christmas trees at Oxford University in the 1990s.
Dear Angus Taylor,
When you say that you remember Naomi Wolf living a few doors down from you in Oxford 28 years ago, I wonder if you’re mythologising a much less glamorous encounter with a fellow female student — me.
Naomi Wolf wasn’t at New College when you and I were fellow Rhodes Scholars there in the early '90s. She had been there in the '80s, but she was long gone by then, riding the wave of publicity for her best-selling book, ‘The Beauty Myth’. Newly arrived from the patriarchal colonies, I was avidly reading ‘The Beauty Myth’ at the time — I would have noticed if Wolf was living amongst us or had come back to visit. She did not.
But the reality she depicted in ‘The Beauty Myth’, where women are held to impossible standards of beauty even as they make gains in formerly male institutions, was certainly recognisable at Oxford in the 1990s. And it was our very different experiences of that reality that led to our encounter — not Christmas trees. You may not remember when I questioned you about your intention to join New College’s covert men-only drinking society. Known for an exclusive ball where female students receiving sought-after invitations were rated for beauty/sexiness in a secret members’ competition, this not-so-secret club was populated with all the rowing club jocks and wealthy public schoolboys who dominated common room culture.
We were just acquaintances, but you seemed like a nice guy. And I wanted to understand why you and so many of your peers were drawn to that environment. So I asked. Had you thought about what it might feel like to be your female peer, barred from membership in your exclusive club and aware of the implicit evaluation of her taking place whether she was invited to the ball or not? About the message it sent me about where my worth lay and how I didn’t really belong? Were these really your values and what you stood for?
As I recall, your reaction to having your choices questioned was similar then to your reaction when Naomi Wolf refuted your story and called you out on your language — injured outrage at being “criticised” and sulky resentment for someone trying to spoil your fun. And seeing yourself as the one in need of an apology.
Why does it matter that Naomi Wolf was not at Oxford with us and had nothing to do with discussions about Christmas trees amongst a group of international students far from home? And why does it matter to me now to remind you of our encounter all these years later?
Of course, you’ve recently had to apologise to another woman for being “loose with the truth”. And every lie in the political scourge of “alternative facts” needs calling out. But for me, it’s not the individual lies themselves that matter so much as the contexts in which you’ve told them. That you were mistaken about an encounter with Naomi Wolf is less important than the giant lie you were peddling when you used her to illustrate your anecdote — the one that casts you as an everyman hero, fighting against “shrill elitists” everywhere.
That giant lie looms large in this week before a generation-defining General Election here in the UK, where looseness with the truth has been a feature of conservative campaigning for years. It’s the same giant lie that public schoolboys Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage and their chum, billionaire Donald Trump over the pond, are successfully peddling — that you and they are the champions of the ordinary, downtrodden everyman, that you help that everyman “take back control” and “be great again” in the face of his very real frustrations and sense of injustice.
You and they point the finger of blame at other imagined elites or competitors for resources while the giant lie obscures the reality that it is you who are the sons of privilege, the real elite and the ones who continue to perpetuate inequality and injustice.
When you mentioned Naomi Wolf and a battle to preserve a Christmas tree in that speech of yours, you were attempting to portray yourself as a heroic, embattled (yet “mainstream”) underdog fighting against politically correct voices “who insist that they know what is best for people who are not remotely like them”. But you were not an underdog. Instead of countenancing a more inclusive decoration of the common room for the holidays as a way to help minority students feel more welcome, you portray yourself fighting and winning the right to maintain your own symbols of belonging. Those same minority students probably didn’t receive invitations to join your covert club and powerful old boys’ network, either.
You were the elite then and you have remained the elite as you travelled from Oxford to McKinsey to Parliament, profiting from deals made with your Oxford old-boys network, focusing mainly on what was best for you and, yes, making a career out of “deciding what is best for people who are not remotely” like you.
Quite a bit has changed since we met nearly 30 years ago, Angus, but much has stayed the same. Women are now better represented in the corridors of power and Oxford is just waking up to its need for a more proactive approach to improving access and retention for BAME students. But as Naomi Wolf tweeted recently – and Julia Gillard, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton can attest – even a woman with ‘ostensibly all the voice in the world can still have no voice’ sometimes and powerful men are getting away with lies and disinformation on a grand scale.
Here in the UK, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage will continue peddling their lies as the British everyman sleepwalks into a Brexit that will make him much worse off but will enrich the powerful elites who have been pushing for it all along. They presided over a toxic referendum campaign, capitalising on divisions and resentments just like the ones you evoked in your speech, to get a whole lot of disenfranchised people to think that Brexit is going to put them back in control.
And you may have had to apologise to Clover Moore, but this week you’re representing Australia in global climate talks as frontman for your Government’s dodgy carbon emissions accounting. The giant lie is winning while the planet burns.
Dr Denise Meyer
Rhodes Scholar (New College and South-Africa-at-Large, 1990)
Dr Denise Meyer is a chartered psychologist and has worked in student support in UK universities since 1995. She is currently Head of Wellbeing at the University of Portsmouth.
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