the iron lady was an enemy of the people and should not be celebrated as a hero

This week, the movie "The Iron Lady" opens, a big-budget biopic starring Meryl Streep as former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. No technical or directorial skills, nor the inevitable genius of Streep's performance, could justify my seeing this movie. Its very existence as a myth-making celebration of a dangerous, war-mongering, ideologue is anathema to me.

Margaret Thatcher destroyed the public sector in the United Kingdom, privatising and deregulating transportation, energy, housing, banking, and other major sectors. She gutted the national healthcare system and public education. She broke unions, because working people were not important to her scheme, but the creation of a millionaire class was.

Thatcher engineered a huge transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector, creating income inequality unprecedented in UK history to that point. She created unemployment, poverty, and despair.

Thatcher destroyed industry and heavy manufacturing while privileging the banking and financial sector. Her policies did not create prosperity: they inflated property values and a small wedge of private wealth.

Then she started a war to distract an uninformed public from the economic chaos she had created and to secure her continued reign. That bears repeating. She started a war for cynical, political purposes. People died, and killed, and were maimed, and left homeless, because it was convenient and useful for her and her financial backers. Think about that before you celebrate this Iron Lady.

I suppose one could say, "It's only a movie. It's not important." Can we live in our media-saturated, truth-challenged world and casually dismiss a major movie as unimportant? This is how myths are created and propagated.

When the war-loving, torture-defending writer Christopher Hitchens died recently, Glenn Greenwald wrote about "the protocol for public figure deaths", and how our cultural taboo against "speaking ill of the dead" has altered the public conception of several people. The example Greenwald looks at most closely is that of Ronald Reagan. After describing the unrelenting, gushing media worship of Reagan during the week following his death, Greenwald notes the effect of that lovefest.
The key claim there was that “politics is put aside.” That’s precisely what did not happen. The entire spectacle was political to its core. Following Woodruff’s proclamation were funeral speeches, all broadcast by CNN, by then-House Speaker Denny Hastert and Vice President Dick Cheney hailing the former President for gifting the nation with peace and prosperity, rejuvenating national greatness, and winning the Cold War. This scene repeated itself over and over during that week: extremely politicized tributes to the greatness of Ronald Reagan continuously broadcast to the nation without challenge and endorsed by its “neutral” media — all shielded from refutation or balance by the grief of a widow and social mores that bar one from speaking ill of the dead.

That week forever changed how Ronald Reagan — and his conservative ideology — were perceived. As Gallup put it in 2004: Reagan had, at best, “routinely average ratings . . . while he served in office between 1981 and 1989.” Indeed, “the two presidents who followed Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, each had higher average ratings than Reagan, as did three earlier presidents — Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight Eisenhower.”

Though he became more popular after leaving office (like most Presidents), it was that week-long bombardment of hagiography that sealed Reagan’s status as Great and Cherished Leader. As media and political figures lavished him with politicized praise, there was virtually no mention of the brutal, civilian-extinguishing covert wars he waged in Central America, his funding of terrorists in Nicaragua, the pervasive illegality of the Iran-contra scandal perpetrated by his top aides and possibly himself, the explosion of wealth and income inequality ushered in by “Reagonmics” which persists today, his escalation of the racially disparate Drug War, his slashing of domestic programs for the poor accompanied by a deficit-causing build-up in the military budget, the racially-tinged (at least) attacks on welfare-queens-in-Cadillacs, the Savings & Loan crisis resulting from deregulation, his refusal even to acknowledge AIDS as tens of thousands of the Wrong People died, the training of Muslim radicals in Afghanistan and arming of the Iranian regime, the attempt to appoint the radical Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, or virtually anything else that would undermine the canonization. The country was drowned by a full, uninterrupted week of pure, leader-reverent propaganda.
Then there's the gender card. Some people will claim that Thatcher is worthy of celebration because she was the UK's first female Prime Minister, and succeeded as a woman in a relentlessly male world. As a feminist and a socialist, and a person of peace and conscience, I conclude that that alone does not a hero make. Hundreds, thousands, millions of women, both famous and unknown, have had to push themselves into previously all-male domains. They have had to be smarter, stronger, and tougher than their male counterparts in order to succeed. Margaret Thatcher tread a path beaten by Nancy Astor, Constance Markievicz, and countless anonymous women, whether they succeeded or tried and failed. The mere fact of a woman's trailblazing should not be enough to win our praise and admiration. In fact, that's a sexist conceit, setting the bar far too low. Our admiration should be reserved for people who contribute positively to society, not the reverse.

Perhaps you have heard that Thatcher only did what was necessary, that she fed the UK the "bad medicine" it needed. It's not so. Start with this: Neil Clark: Don't believe the myth. Margaret Thatcher ruined egalitarian 1970s Britain.

Here's an excellent piece from a Brit, Harry Paterson, anticipating the reaction when Thatcher dies: The Best Way To Deal With Margaret Thatcher’s Legacy Is To Destroy It.


Amy said...

Does the movie in fact celebrate her as a hero? I have not seen it, and I am sure that it must to some extent, but I wonder whether it is more three-dimensional than you think. I did see Meryl Street interviewed, and she did not say anything critical about Thatcher in that interview, but I am curious to see the movie because for me, I often find that a movie is what causes me to start asking questions about the accuracy of what is depicted, rather than simply accepting it as gospel truth.

allan said...

National Post:

"The Cold War is compressed into Thatcher dancing with Reagan, the Berlin Wall coming down, the Paris conference that ended the Cold War ... Her opposition to the euro is alluded to in a single sentence. The 1974 Tory crisis is pictorially represented by dramatic scenes of rubbish piling up that really relate to the 1979 "winter of discontent" under Labour. And so on. But we get very little context that would explain the reasons for these various conflicts — nothing about the revived Soviet threat of the mid-to-late 1970s, nothing about the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, mounting an explicitly political challenge to the government, nothing about the erosion of national sovereignty within the European Union. This is a film about politics without politics.

In the absence of political context, however, all these different conflicts seem to be united by only one thing: namely, the nature of Thatcher herself and her "divisive" leadership. And that is really the movie’s all-too-evident subtext: she is "a battler" who has "battled all her life."


It is impossible to have a political film devoid of politics. Not explaining something, or ignoring something, makes a statement, as well.

Amy said...

Thanks, Allan. That certainly helps to put the movie into perspective.

Amy said...

Oh, and obviously I meant STREEP, not Street.

laura k said...

I think the fact of the movie itself is hero worship. Hollywood biopics are either about heroes or anti-heroes.

The hero movies normally include a few moments of ambiguity or criticism but the overall effect is not critical.

The trailers for this movie are full of stirring music, images of strength and determination, "great man" shots. I'd be shocked if it turned out to be an anti-hero movie.

Thatcher is a polarizing figure. She is revered and she is loathed - not because of her personality or her gender, but because of her deeds. So if this movie's tone is positive overall, it dispenses with the reasons she is loathed and opts for the heroic view.

A movie about the reasons Thatcher is loathed would be, for example, a movie by Ken Loach about a coal mining community devastated by her policies. It would not be a movie about her.

laura k said...

I think focusing on an individual as an agent of history is almost always a heroic view. Even movies about people considered bad - dictators, gangsters, violent revolutionaries - usually go with an anti-hero approach, showing the cuddly do-gooder under the gruff exterior.

johngoldfine said...

I haven't seen the movie, only the inescapable clips on British tv, and, marvelous as Streep no doubt is, I wonder if there's really much scope for an actress in a biopic. The character is already there, so one does the voice, the gestures, the makeup, the costume, the script--but the heart of the actor's business is laid out, readymade.

I had the same feeling about Dustin Hoffman in 'Rainman.'--is there a character there the actor is exploring or just a particularly fine job of mimicry of autism?

In any case, Laura's grafs 2-5 are a pretty powerful corrective to historical amnesia.

laura k said...

I didn't want to include a critique of Streep in this post, but I'm glad John brought it up.

I have long thought that much of what people adore about Ms Streep is not fine acting but excellent mimicry. Often she does not inhabit a role so much as re-create a person. The accents, the hairstyle, the physicality - it often feels cold to me. But she does it excellently, better than most.

And I wouldn't say that about all her roles, just some of them. If you saw Angels of America, her multiple roles were the opposite of this critique.

Rainman isn't a role I would put in that category, but I can see feeling that way, and I can name other roles like that.

deang said...

Thanks for that link to Neil Clark's debunking of the myth of a dysfunctional 70s Britain. Clear information like that is always useful. There's such an obvious parallel between that and US beliefs in a pre-Reagan 70s "malaise" that was replaced by 80s "optimism." Anyone who lived through that period knows the opposite was true, but it's always great to have facts to prove it to younger people.

I don't have the exact references with me, but historian Eric Hobsbawm asserted in either Interesting Times or The Ages of Extremes that the only 20th century change in the UK far-reaching enough to be considered revolutionary was brought about by Thatcher in the 80s, and it was not for the better.