In her column in El Espectador a few days ago, Patricia Lara published a conversation that would have merited more discussion, but in Colombia, where elusive reality throws a new problem in our faces every twelve hours, it was lost amid seemingly more important matters. Her interlocutor was journalist Alejandra de Vengoechea, and the conversation began with a phrase that was suggestive, to say the least: “How tiring the testosterone ruling the world is!” And she listed a quick inventory of the men whose decisions have caused untold suffering in recent months and — these are my words, not those of the journalists — threaten to launch us into even darker times of even greater suffering. Hamas, Putin, Netanyahu, Iran’s ayatollahs: the journalists’ conversation contrasted all these characters, the architects of the current violence, with Jacinda Ardern, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, whose handling of moments of crisis — and she’s had to contend with several, even in a remote and small country: further proof that there are no longer remote or small countries — seemed frankly marvelous to so many of us.
I hasten to say that, in this world of ours, New Zealand is an exemplary country, and that makes everything easier: quite simply, there are countries where sanity is easier. I have only been there once, in the city of Wellington, but a few days were enough for me to understand that there is something special about New Zealand: if I remember correctly, it was the first country in the world to recognize the rights of its aboriginal peoples (it did so in the 19th century, when nobody would have demanded such a thing from a government of colonizers), and its civic conversations — on the rights of immigrants, on religious freedom, on ecology, even on rugby — offer a glimpse into an enviable democratic culture. But that doesn’t matter, especially in the age of social media: there is no such thing as a small problem and there is no entirely sensible society. The crises that befell Jacinda Ardern — the attack on Christchurch mosques in 2019 and the COVID virus months later— would have been a major challenge for anyone. And yes: Jacinda Ardern’s handling of the two incidents, which were very different in duration and policy implications, was so sensible and responsible that a conversation quickly emerged between us: when it comes to governance, is it possible that women do it better?
About ten years ago at a public forum, I dared to suggest that they do: that the world would be slightly better off if women were in charge, or if they were in charge more often. Ten years ago, opportunistic or latter-day feminism — and its predictable corollary, cranky misogyny — had not yet become fashionable, so I said that without worrying about trends. Ten years later, I still think that this is the case: contrary to what history dictates, political power is best in women’s hands. But not just political power: economic power can also be part of this conversation. At that time, we were still suffering the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, and now, with the proof available to us — and after dozens of films, documentaries, books and journalistic articles that have been published on the subject — it seems clear to me that the debacle had a lot to do with a certain masculinity, or a certain way of exercising masculinity, which involves risky behavior that is more typical of an adolescent who lacks a fully developed prefrontal cortex. I do not remember where I read the statement of one of swindler Bernie Madoff’s victims: “We would not have lost everything if Bernie had been Bernadette.” The sentence contains some humor, of course, but you have to look at it closely.
In those days, the financial crisis had taken Iceland’s entire economy by storm, and everyone knew what the causes were: a reckless risk-taking banking culture that wanted to have the country — and its population of 300,000 people — compete in the shark tank of the financial world. Admiration of irresponsible and ambitious behavior, so sadly masculine, has had dire consequences everywhere in the world; in Iceland it wiped out the three main banks and threw the country into a catastrophe from which it might well have never emerged. I would not want to trivialize the matter, but what happened then was very simple: women came in to clean up the mess the men had left behind. The positions of power that the disgraced leaders had vacated were filled by a generation of female economists in their 40s and older, and the prime minister was replaced by a lesbian woman who was in her early 70s at the time, Johanna Sigurdadóttir.
Again: I don’t remember where I read about an economist who had founded a new investment fund with different values (this could be an article about people who read too many newspapers and then are unable to remember where their information comes from): she preferred prudence to risk, for example, and was not ashamed to conduct “emotional” research on the companies she invested in. If I remember correctly, she spoke of emotional due diligence, of knowing what the company’s financial culture is like, of looking at the people, not just their numbers. At the time, these were somewhat revolutionary practices. But they worked: in a matter of five years, Iceland was completely out of the crisis. We will have to see what the direct relationship is between the two.
There’s no need for anybody to point out to me the existence of the Marine Le Pens and the Giorgia Melonis of this world, or of our ineffable local representatives from the most intemperate and angry extreme right, or of the silliest left-wing populism here and in Latin America: that exists everywhere. But I am not sure that these specific cases invalidate the conversation Patricia Lara proposed. There are forms of irresponsibility toward others, of unscrupulous risk, of avoidable violence, of lack of empathy or outright bullying that have a lot to do with a certain macho culture, or a certain cultural machismo. And I’m not just talking about politicians who threaten one another with “hit him in the face, faggot,” or who yell at each other to “be a man,” or who brag about grabbing women “by the pussy” and are then rewarded with the presidency of the United States. Or maybe I am. Maybe I am talking about them too, even if those schoolyard, apprentice gangster and dressing-room stalker behaviors do not belong to the same order as the wars that are changing our world forever. But it is true that they say a lot about us and our societies: about what we are, what we tolerate, what we admire.
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