/ 3 August 2022

Three writers respond to Drew Forrest’s New Frame piece in the M&G and Rebecca Davis’s article in Daily Maverick

Becs Newframe Bombs

Vashna Jagarnath

The philosopher Lewis Gordan shows that anti-black racism takes the form of an oscillation between the invisibility and hyper-visibility of black people. The same is true of sexism, something that is compounded in the case of black women.

When the attacks on New Frame in the liberal media began after the funding crisis, I bizarrely found myself rendered hyper-visible. It has been bizarre because I never had any kind of formal or informal role in New Frame. I never even published in New Frame. On one of the very few occasions that I visited the office I was treated with wounding hostility by three white staff members after which I preferred to not even visit the offices. Yet somehow my name keeps coming up as this liberal attack unfolds. This is extraordinary. 

The editor of New Frame, Richard Pithouse, is my former husband, and I have been placed in the role of a classic sexist stereotype — the Lady Macbeth figure. It should go without saying that we are both autonomous people, each with our own jobs, intellectual orientations and forms of political commitment. 

This started after Rebecca Davis published a piece about New Frame and Pithouse in the Daily Maverick. People who had read New Frame, or know Pithouse, were deeply shocked and offended by the piece, which also had strongly Sinophobic elements and traded in a classic anti-Indian colonial stereotype.

Davis has a history with me. In 2016 she wrote, “I’m worried that the project of feminism as a whole is being undermined by the casual derision with which it’s now possible to dismiss white feminism.” I responded in a reasoned piece in the Daily Vox showing that white feminism has a long history of colluding with racism and that forms of white feminism that deny the intersection of race, patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism are complicit with racism. This is a standard position in black feminism, and one accepted by progressive white feminists. However, the response to my piece was a vicious all-out social media mobbing from a large group of white women. A good number identified themselves as friends or sympathisers of Davis. 

I recently put the following post on social media: “White female journalists, one of whom writes for Daily Maverick, is not just content on trading in grossly racist stereotypes on Indians. She is happy to add Sinophobia to her already existing problematic politics, including racist white middle class feminism. Can you guess who?”

The response of Davis’s editor, Branko Brkic, was astounding. When Pithouse contacted him on WhatsApp to request a right to reply to the Davis article he asked: “Why is Rebecca attacked as racist?” He described my post as “abuse”. Pithouse responded, correctly, by suggesting that Brkic contact me directly. Brkic’s response was to say “No. No point. This is not cool and have no interest. Will not forget it in a hurry either.” He then said: “This is unacceptable … But I will not forget”.  Pithouse again asked Brkic to speak to me directly and again he refused.

The idea that a husband should control his wife or a former husband his ex-wife is sexist. Here we have a clear case of a white man thinking that he can implicitly insist that another white man should discipline “his women”. This is shockingly crude sexism.

When Pithouse’s reply to Davis was published she replied at the bottom saying that “Close associates of Pithouse have launched extraordinary attacks on me on social media. These intimidation tactics are beneath contempt.” She was clearly referring to me. By making this statement in a reply to Pithouse she, too, implied a repetition of the sexist trope that a man should control “his woman”. 

Drew Forrest, in his articleNew Frame closure: Socialism’s problem remains the socialists”, was even more crude. From the very beginning he traded in racial stereotypes stating that: “I screamed out my post.” This is classic misogynoir, a straightforward weaponisation of the pernicious stereotype of the angry or hysterical black woman. 

He went on to write: “What have Davis’s whiteness and feminist views to do with the New Frame imbroglio? Jagarnath’s semi-literate post is a crude dog whistle intended to discredit the journalist without confronting the issues.” For a white man to call a black woman “semi-literate”, a black woman who as it happens has a PhD, is outrageous. 

According to Forrest I am an uneducated, unthinking black woman who should stay out of the public sphere, especially if asking questions of the politics of a white woman. His attempt to say that Davis cannot be engaged on race when she has slandered a largely black project, in terms of its management and its production, and written from a perspective that I see as Sinophobic and anti-Indian is equally outrageous. The sneering arrogance with which he presumes a right to ban discussion of race is just staggering. 

Brkic and Davis need to understand that the idea that a woman is not an autonomous person and that her ex-husband should be held accountable for her actions is equally sexist and equally offensive. Brkic also needs to understand that it is outrageous to assume, as he clearly did, that a man should discipline ‘his woman’.

The conduct of Davis, Brkic and Forrest needs to be placed in the history of the entanglement of race, gender, and capitalism, as demonstrated by the likes of Ida B Wells, Angela Davis, and bell hooks to name a few. We should recall that in 1851 at the Women’s Rights Convention held in Akron, Ohio in the United States, Sojourner Truth, who had escaped slavery, was actively stopped from speaking by both white women and men. Despite attempts to silence Truth she did speak and unlike many white suffragettes who only supported enfranchisement for white women, she spoke to true universal suffrage, for justice and liberation for all people. 

This is because Truth understood all too well the triple burden of oppression of race, class and gender. Since its conception, radical black feminism and radical feminism of the global South based itself on understanding this triple oppression, something that is missed both by Brkic and Forrest. If they understood this, they would know that because I might have been able to build a middle-class life and that Davis and I are both women we still don’t have an equal standing in the public sphere. I doubt very much that either man would have treated Davis in the manner that they treated me.

The silencing of black women in the name of white women has been happening for centuries and has been actively sown into the very fabric of the system of racial capitalism within which we live. Liberalism is the key ideology of that system. We should not forget how Ida B Wells, pointed out in relation to lynching it was often in the name of protecting white women that white men killed black men. And that white suffragettes like Francis Willard actively campaigned against the vote for black people and wished to keep the ballot lily white. When the Nationalist Party came to power in South Africa 1948 most white women were happy to get the franchise on the backs of denying the vote to the few black men at the time who could vote. The way in which Brkic and Forrest rushed to defend a white woman from legitimate critique by a black woman shows that this long history is not over.

Vijay Prashad 

I am grateful to the Mail & Guardian for giving me the right to respond, something that Daily Maverick has refused to do so.

Amid a rather unpleasant article written by Drew Forrest published in your paper – unpleasant because of the racist and sexist language used against Vashna Jagarnath – he drags me in for reasons that are mystifying to me. The article is about the crisis faced by New Frame, for which I have never worked. He writes about me in three paragraphs, none of which illuminate his own article, but they certainly try to besmirch my reputation.

Here are his three points:

First, that I sent out a tweet that he says “appears” to enter the discussion about New Frame’s problems. I admit that the tweet was gnomic, but the very least that a journalist should do is to reach out to me and ask about the context and meaning of the tweet. Rather than do so, Forrest simply uses the tweet, which is a reflection about a range of things, to drag me into his story.

Second, he defines me as a “parlour Bolshie”, making a note about where I studied for my degrees. Forrest does not know anything about my life, having drawn everything in this paragraph from Wikipedia, which – as you know – is never the best way to learn about a person.

Third, and most significantly, Forrest says something about my work – “Stiffening staff resistance to the publication of his columns, seen as Chinese and Russian propaganda, became a flashpoint at New Frame.” I asked the editors at New Frame about this and was told that only two staff members, out of over 25, expressed concern about some of my writings. I would like to say that your own paper has regularly published my columns, which are offered by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. I write a reported column every week for 670 publications. These columns are written about events in the Sahel and Mozambique — the entire series used in your newspaper — and from India and Cuba. I have just completed reporting on the lithium triangle from Chile’s Atacama Desert, a series that I hope will be used by your paper.

New Frame, as far as I know, published only a handful of these columns. John Pilger, a reporter that I deeply admire, wrote of Globetrotter that it “represents a kind of journalism almost extinct in the West. Led by Vijay Prashad’s outstanding reporting, it gives voice to those who speak up for the majority of humanity.”

I have been a journalist for 40 years ever since I wrote my first story on the Israeli-designed massacre at Sabra and Shatila in 1982. Over the course of these past decades, I have written for many publications, including India’s flagship newspaper (The Hindu) and magazine (Frontline). I have covered US wars in Iraq and Libya, as well as the unsettling interventions in the Sahel and in East Africa. For this reporting, I received the honour of delivering the 2018 Nadim Makdisi Memorial Fund Annual Lecture, the premier award for journalists in the Middle East.

Forrest’s slur against me — seen as Chinese and Russian propaganda — is very serious in this era when any dissent against US power is described as Chinese and/or Russian disinformation. He does not show even one example of any such “propaganda”, only slimes me in pages where these very articles have appeared.

I request the Mail & Guardian to retract that statement.

Richard Pithouse

Drew Forrest’s article on New Frame, says quite a lot about the writer, none of it salutary,  and nothing of any value about the ostensible focus of his article. Like Rebecca Davis, Sam Sole and Micah Reddy he has demonstrably abandoned any serious commitment to reason and evidence when it comes to his assessment of a publication that had the temerity to dissent from the drab liberal consensus that stifles critical thought across much of our media. A good deal of that consensus is shaped by an unreflective and often sneeringly arrogant white identity politics. 

The accumulation of slander, innuendo, disregard for empirical evidence and simple maliciousness in the liberal media following the demise of New Frame has been extraordinary. It will require some serious collective reflection at some point. But for now those who prefer to take empirical reality seriously will take their measure of what New Frame was by examining the work that we published. They will find the distance between the work that New Frame actually produced and what has been said and implied in some reporting to be vast.

I will not bother with Forrest’s implication that white people should not name and oppose white racism. It is self-evidently ridiculous.

Vashna Jagarnath is deputy general secretary of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party and a senior research associate for the Centre of Social Change at the University of Johannesburg, Richard Pithouse was the editor of New Frame and Vijay Prashad is a historian, commentator and a Marxist intellectual.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.