Archive for the ‘masculinity’ Category
I’m very pleased to introduce a guest post from Mircea, a history grad studying South Asia, first published at his blog, Just Speculations. I’m particularly glad that he’s coined the phrase “subaltern of my dreams.” I can only hope this will be the title of his first book. – Luce
Over on facebook, Leil Zahra-Mortada has collected an album of photographs of women protesting in Cairo over the past weeks. Here are a few particularly striking ones:
My first impulse, after I broke out in tears, was to think about theories of subjectivity and the challenge of Berkeley anthropologist Saba Mahmood to feminist notions of agency in her book Politics of Piety. Mahmood had studied women who participated in the Islamic revivalist mosque movement in Egypt and focused on how they ethically “trained” their bodies and sensibilities to meet the demands of Islamic norms. In so doing, and building on the work of Talal Asad, she questioned the understanding of “agency” as a reflection of a subject’s conscious will and desire. Instead, it was possible for women to express agency even in the very act of following norms that Western feminism would deem oppressive and patriarchal. This, of course, set her on a collision path with those feminists who allied themselves with neo-conservative imperialism in order to “liberate” the women of Afghanistan, Iran and the wider Middle East. In a 2008 essay entitled “Feminism, Democracy and Empire,” Mahmood refuses to allow Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Azar Nafisi and Irshad Manji to serve as spokeswomen for all Muslim women. Why not listen, instead, to the myriad women’s movements and organisations, across the political and religious spectrum, in the Muslim world?
The Revolution in Egypt, and especially the photographs above, have shown to whoever cared to listen that Muslim women can make their voices heard alongside with men, demand those same political and social rights that supposedly belong to the Western “liberal” tradition, and scream, cry, bleed and die for them. Of course, Ayaan Hirsi Ali doesn’t care to listen. In a recent op-ed, written while Mubarak’s security apparatus was still beating people to a pulp in the streets of Cairo, she worried about the Muslim Brotherhood’s hypothetical takeover. Bemoaning the supposed weakness of the “secular democratic forces,” she paints a dark scenario based, it appears, on some turgid autobiographical stories from when she was 15. It is assumed throughout, based on her previous books, that one of the bad things about the coming reign of Sharia will be women’s oppression.
And then it hit me: what all these critics, from Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Glenn Beck to French legislators banning the veil, have done is to effectively de-humanise the majority of Muslim women. Any woman who wears a scarf and/or niqab, who bears the outward signs of the patriarchal oppression that lies beneath, cannot be heard in her own voice. Look again at those photos. Those women, caught in a snapshot of anger or passion, are not calculating their own future status under the Muslim Brotherhood, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali does for them while safely ensconced in the US. They are not theorizing how conservative or liberal they are, or how much agency they get. They stand side by side with women in jeans, T-shirts and fashionable scarves. Because what they’re wearing doesn’t matter, even their being women qua women ceases to matter for the moment. They are demanding Mubarak leave and the country see free elections. Subalterns do speak, and when they do they may not be the subaltern of your dreams, or mine. They don’t say, “Freedom, but as long as what comes next isn’t too Islamic, in which case we should just stay put.” They say, “Freedom. Now.”
Oh wait, actually it’s a review of Bush Junior’s Decision Points from Eliot Weinberg over at the London Review of Books. Thanks to Mircea, always on the look out for the absurd, for sending my way. For those of you who are not regular readers of the London Review of Books or my facebook wall I am providing some key moments. Consider it a holiday treat [question: does my use of the term “holiday treat” constitute a Battle on Christmas?]. I would provide extensive commentary except that really, at this time of year, all we want is to get to the good stuff:
I will note that the review, presumably reflecting the book, plays as a tragicomedy — the further you go in it the sicker you feel. Apply Foucault to Bush! Clever! But keep going on and the fictionality of the text and the vagueness of the author makes your stomach do a few flips. “Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality?” are all fine things to ask about J. M. Coetzee, but they’re not ones you want to have to ask constantly about the actions and words of a president who ran your country for eight years:
‘Damn it, we can do more than one thing at a time,’ I told the national security team.
As I told my advisers, ‘I didn’t take this job to play small ball.’
‘This is a good start, but it’s not enough,’ I told him. ‘Go back to the drawing board and think even bigger.’
‘We don’t have 24 hours,’ I snapped. ‘We’ve waited too long already.’
‘What the hell is going on?’ I asked Hank. ‘I thought we were going to get a deal.’
‘That’s it?’ I snapped.
As Foucault says, ‘The author’s name serves to characterise a certain mode of being of discourse.’
This is a chronicle of the Bush Era with no colour-coded Terror Alerts; no Freedom Fries; no Halliburton; no Healthy Forests Initiative (which opened up wilderness areas to logging); no Clear Skies Act (which reduced air pollution standards); no New Freedom Initiative (which proposed testing all Americans, beginning with schoolchildren, for mental illness); no pamphlets sold by the National Parks Service explaining that the Grand Canyon was created by the Flood; no research by the National Institutes of Health on whether prayer can cure cancer (‘imperative’, because poor people have limited access to healthcare); no cover-up of the death of football star Pat Tillman by ‘friendly fire’ in Afghanistan; no ‘Total Information Awareness’ from the Information Awareness Office; no Project for the New American Century; no invented heroic rescue of Private Jessica Lynch; no Fox News; no hundreds of millions spent on ‘abstinence education’. It does not deal with the Cheney theory of the ‘unitary executive’ – essentially that neither the Congress nor the courts can tell the president what to do – or Bush’s frequent use of ‘signing statements’ to indicate that he would completely ignore a bill that the Congress had just passed.
I never know whether to admire or detest Barbara Bush. I admire her brute strength and the fact that she whips George Junior into shape, but Margaret Thatcher had some of the same qualities. I like that she called her son out for fabricating or at least falsifying the fetus-in-a-jar story. But at the end of the day all one can say is that she might be the best of a very bad lot:
Mother – she’s never Mom – pops up frequently with a withering remark. As middle-aged Junior runs a marathon, Mother and Dad are, of course, coming out of church. Standing on the steps, Dad cheers ‘That’s my boy!’ and Mother shouts ‘Keep moving, George! There are some fat people ahead of you!’ When Junior decides to run for governor, Mother’s reaction is simply: ‘George, you can’t win.’ Not cited is Mother’s indelible comment on the Iraq War: ‘Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? Why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?’ But the single newsworthy item in this entire book is the get-this-boy-to-therapy scene where Mother has a miscarriage at home, asks teenaged Junior to drive her to the hospital, and shows him the foetus of his sibling, which for some reason she has put in a jar.
Bush claims this was the moment when he became ‘pro-life’, unalterably opposed to abortion and, later, embryonic stem-cell research. (The thought would not have occurred to Mother. At the time, patrician Republicans like the Bushes were birth-control advocates; like Margaret Sanger, they didn’t want the unwashed masses wildly reproducing. Dad was even on the board of the Texas branch of Planned Parenthood. )
Decision Points flaunts its postmodernity by blurring the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. That is to say, the parts that are not outright lies – particularly the accounts of Hurricane Katrina and the lead-up to the Iraq War – are the sunnier halves of half-truths. The legions of amateur investigative journalists on the internet – as usual, doing the job the major media no longer perform – are busily compiling lists of those lies. Gerhard Schroeder has already stated that the passage in which he appears is completely false. And even Mother has weighed in. Interviewed recently on television, she said she never showed Junior that jar, but maybe ‘Paula’ did. (It was assumed we would know that Paula was the maid.)
And finally the infamous claim that the worst moment of his presidency was Kanye West, which I’m surprised was actually let in by whatever crowd of advisers/consultants/focus groups vetted/wrote the thing
The book states that, for him, the worst moment of his presidency was, not 9/11, or the hundreds of thousands he killed or maimed, or the millions he made homeless in Iraq and jobless in the United States, but when the rapper Kanye West said, in a fundraiser for Katrina victims, that Bush didn’t care about black people.
West was only half right. Bush is not particularly racist. He never portrayed Hispanics as hordes of scary invaders; Condi was his workout buddy and virtually his second wife; he was in awe of Colin Powell; and he was most comfortable in the two most integrated sectors of American society, the military and professional sports. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about black people. Outside of his family, he didn’t care about people, and Billy Graham taught him that ‘we cannot earn God’s love through good deeds’ – only through His grace, which Bush knew he had already received.
And that’s where the devastation really hits. Because who would want a president who lacks empathy, and why would such a man ever become president except for the most noxious of reasons.
In boxing, this sort of thing is inevitable. The sport has long been racially charged, perhaps most famously when Jack Johnson fought Jim Jeffries in Reno, Nevada in 1910. Much of the American public imagined Jeffries as “The Great White Hope.” Johnson dashed those hopes, brutally battering his opponent for 15 rounds until Jeffries’ corner called it quits and riots erupted across the country (often simply in response to blacks celebrating in the streets), killing 23 African Americans and two white people. The story of Jack Johnson has achieved legendary status, immortalized in a 1967 play, The Great White Hope, starring a young James Earl Jones, and later in Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness.
That story, of course, extended far beyond the ring. Johnson broke many racial taboos of his time, most infamously in his very public relationships with white women. He played upon stereotypes to suit his purposes, purportedly even wrapping his penis in gauze underneath his shorts to make it appear bigger. Johnson’s effect on American conceptions of race and masculinity is best explored in Gail Bederman’s introduction to her excellent study, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917.
The story of race and boxing doesn’t stop there. As NYU historian Jeffrey Sammons chronicles in his Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society, discussion of race played a huge role in the career of Joe Louis, the first Black heavyweight champion after Johnson, and of course in the life Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most famous athlete who ever lived.
Today, racial discourse in boxing usual surrounds the action inside the ring. We live in strange times for spectators of the “sweet science.” The demographics of fighters and fans has shifted dramatically. Boxing has always been popular among American immigrants. Every young Jewish schlemiel who aspired to some sort of masculine ideal has devoured books like The Jewish Boxer’s Hall of Fame or When Boxing was a Jewish Sport. In the beginning of the 20th century the sport was especially popular among Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants, as many fighters of that era drew the colour line and refused to box against African-Americans, especially after the “Great White Hope” affair. At this time, boxing was the second most popular sport in America, after baseball, the national pastime.
With the rise of Joe Louis, African Americans began to achieve prominence in the sport in greater numbers. After WW2, Jewish participation in boxing fell off dramatically, though other white ethnics, especially Italians, continued to succeed, most famously Rocky Marciano. For this reason, the image of the Italian fighter resonated enough to make the 1975 Oscar-winning movie Rocky so successful. By the 1960s, however, Blacks dominated most weight classes. This began to change, though, as Latinos earned championships, especially at the lighter weights. In the 1980s, though Mike Tyson ruled the heavyweight class and Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns all achieved stardom, fighters like Roberto Duran and Alexis Arguello ushered in a wave of Latino champions. In the 1990s, many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, along with Puerto Ricans and Cuban defectors, entered the ranks of boxing’s best. Boxing in the United States remained an immigrant sport, but the immigrants had changed.
Still, African Americans dominated much of boxing, like they came to dominate baseball, and to an even greater extent football, basketball and track and field. Scholars reached for scientific explanations. Books like John Hoberman’s 1997 volume Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race takes a historical and cultural perspective, while Jon Ensine’s 1999 work, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, tackles the “science” more directly, concluding that a combination of biology and culture has led to Black athletic success. While Ensine’s conclusions are controversial and questionable, his contribution to the dialogue on this “taboo” issue is extremely valuable. To this day, when we see the runners line up for the 100 meter dash in the Olympics, most of us can predict accurately that the top three sprinters will be people of African origin. Why this is deserves to be studied.
In boxing, however, things are a bit different. Today, the fight game is not nearly as popular as it once was to the broader American public, but it remains extremely popular among Hispanics. And while African Americans once dominated the heavyweight class to such an extent that it was mocked in the 1996 parody, The Great White Hype, now the sport’s glamour division is ruled by two Ukrainian giants, the brothers Vladimir and Vitali Klitschko. Great Black athletes who weigh over 200 pounds are turning to football and basketball, and to a lesser extent baseball, where there is more money, less risk, and the possibility of getting a college education through athletic scholarships. The integration and growing popularity of America’s other major sports sounded the death knell for boxing’s prominence in American life. In a sense, Jackie Robinson killed the African American heavyweight, though he died a slow, illustrious death, and lived long enough to give the United States Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, and Mike Tyson, among many other greats.
At the lower weights, however, things remain different. If you’re a great athlete, but only 5’5” and 125 pounds, your options are pretty limited if you want to make money in sports. Boxing may be your best or even only route. Indeed, this is probably true for men under 6 feet tall and 175 pounds, with some exceptions among middle infielders and point guards, and maybe the odd running back or tennis player. And so while Latinos (from the US and elsewhere) and now Asians and Europeans are an enormous presence in the ring, Black fighters in the lower weight classes still win championships, none more famously than Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Mayweather, aka “Pretty Boy Floyd,” aka Floyd “Money” Mayweather,” may be the best pound-for-pound fight in the world. The only other candidate is Pacman, Manny Pacquaio. Mayweather has already hurled ethnic slurs at Pacquaio, making fun of Manny’s Filipino heritage. Mayweather also may have beaten his ex-girlfriend. Leaving that aside (which, I recognize, is a lot to ask), many believe a fight between these two men, despite their relatively small size, could be the biggest boxing match in years. Both men stand to make millions from it. Unfortunately, they’ve had trouble agreeing on drug testing specifics before the fight. Most observers agree that Mayweather seems to be the one ducking Pacquaio, though at this point his legal troubles might derail the whole thing even if the two boxers do come to an agreement.
If they were to fight, however, who would win? Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins, aka B-Hop, the Philadelphia fighter and former middleweight champion, clearly favours Floyd. Why? Because of his race.
“Floyd Mayweather would beat Manny Pacquiao because the styles that African-American fighters — and I mean, black fighters from the streets or the inner cities — would be successful,” said Hopkins, according to Fanhouse.com. “I think Floyd Mayweather would pot-shot Pacquiao and bust him up in between the four-to-five punches that Pacquiao throws and then set him up later on down the line.”
Interestingly, Hopkins does not attribute Mayweather’s advantage to any biological or genetic superiority. Essentially, his strength is one of culture. For as the article notes:
Pacquiao fought and defeated Joshua Clottey of Ghana earlier this year, but Hopkins discounted that win, saying “Clottey is ‘black,’ but not a ‘black boxer’ from the states with a slick style.”
Hopkins also said this:
“Maybe I’m biased because I’m black, but I think that this is what is said at people’s homes and around the dinner table among black boxing fans and fighters. Most of them won’t say it [in public] because they’re not being real and they don’t have the balls to say it,” said Hopkins, a 45-year-old future Hall of Famer and a multi-division champion. “Listen, this ain’t a racial thing, but then again, maybe it is,” said Hopkins. “But the style that is embedded in most of us black fighters, that style could be a problem to any other style of fighting.”
So Joshua Clottey, from Ghana, doesn’t have it, though it’s “embedded” in most Black fighters. This a new, and interesting form of racial essentialism. It’s the same kind of rationale behind the argument that China will never produce a great point guard, because Chinese basketball players don’t develop the toughness that African American guards practicing on inner city playgrounds do. Is there any truth to this? Who knows? I do agree with the ESPN commentators that it is strange and surprising that Pacquiao has never faced an African American opponent. But I also agree that this has nothing to do with race.
In any case, I’m not sure if these race and sports questions can be answered. But I do want to see Pacquiao and Mayweather fight. Lord knows I’ll be rooting for Pacman, and not because of his race, but because he’s a class act and Mayweather’s a criminal and a dick. Also, I think Pacquiao should be the underdog, and I always root for the underdog.
Who do I think would/will win? I think Mayweather will be much harder to hit than Margarito was. Mayweather is a defense master and he hates getting hit. Pacquiao has incredibly fast hands, but they used to say that about Oscar de la Hoya until he came up against Shayne Mosley and Mayweather, both of whom were faster. I think Mayweather might have faster hands than Manny as well. I also think Floyd’s punching power is underrated. Though he’s not a brawler, he can punch.
At the same time, Pacquiao hits very hard, and he will eventually hit Mayweather. I don’t think the strategy he used against the bigger Margarito, in-and-out, pot-shot from different angles, will work against Floyd. He’ll have to crowd him, stay busy, stay on him, go to the body. I still think Floyd probably wins by decision or late stoppage. But then again, Manny has surprised fans over and over again. He started his career at flyweight, and now has won a junior middleweight belt, beating a guy who weighed over 165 pounds on fight night. Manny was able to hurt Margarito, so he will definitely be able to hurt Floyd. I don’t see Manny winning a decision, but just maybe he knocks Mayweather out. If he does that, he may be the greatest fighter of all time.
I was in a New York bookstore last weekend when the word “Matricide!” scrawled across the cover of Harper’s magazine caught my eye. Yet another story about the cat-(read: bitch)-fight between my feminist generation and our second wave mothers, this time by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi in a cover story titled “American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide.” The need to invoke Greek tragedy to add fateful weight to a warmed-over story did not bode well. I shrugged and moved on.
So maybe I was irritated by a sexist media’s need to paint intergenerational conflicts as distinctly “female,” maybe I was nonplussed by their assumption that fragmentation in the sisterhood is necessarily a negative thing, maybe I was angered by their constant need to ask what I consider a silly, tautological question: Why do women, who have been raised by their mothers to freely decide their futures, fail to become their mothers?
And by “shrugged and moved on,” I mean I stewed throughout my four-hour bus trip back to Boston and bought the mag when I arrived at South Station. Let me throw in a few full disclosures at this point. First, if a generational label is forced on me, then you would call me a member of the seemingly incoherent, rogue younger generation. Or in Faludi’s generational construct, a feminist who not only repeats the 1920s young women’s matricide of her reformist mothers, but has fallen into the “1920s trap of employing a commercialized ersatz ‘liberation’ to undermine the political mobilization of their mothers.” I’m going to assume, though Faludi might try to disavow it, that this is code for oversexed, frivolous, panderer to the masculine worldview.
Second, I am more inclined to reconciliation than polemics, and used to blog at Girl w/ Pen with Deborah Siegel and Courtney Martin, whom Faludi discusses as members of “’Women, Girls, Ladies,’ a feminist road show meant to foster a “fresh conversation” between younger and older women.” Finally, before picking up Faludi’s article, I had just finished Wendy Kline’s new book, Bodies of Knowledge: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Women’s Health in the Second Wave, a great look at the paradoxical successes and failures of the American women health movement’s efforts to transform medicine’s way of knowing from an objective, lab-based epistemology to an experiential one and ground a “universal sisterhood” of women in corporeality. I was softened at the time by Kline’s descriptions of the earnest if often futile efforts made by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective to incorporate as many different experiences of the “female body” into Our Bodies, Ourselves as possible. I was more than ready, in other words, to lend a sympathetic ear to the concerns of my elders.
Instead I was infuriated. I’m still not sure why Faludi wrote this piece. She herself acknowledges that media coverage of this intergenerational feminist “conflict” is hardly new; flare-ups happen every couple of years. Perhaps Faludi did the math and realized there hadn’t been any major shots fired since Rebecca Walker’s 2008 smackdown of second-wavers in Baby Love. Perhaps she thought she was saying something “new” in constructing a narrative wherein daughters have been committing matricide since the 1920s (when the New Woman killed her reformist mother), not just the 1990s. But isn’t this just the typical storyline of cyclical youth rebellion in a rapidly evolving, “modern” society? Why gender it? In any case, her obvious preference for Second Wave feminism still places any “betrayal” squarely on my generation’s shoulders. Perhaps her initial aim was reconciliation, but she found the surprise defeat of a thirty-three-year old black daughter figure (Latifa Lyles) by a fifty-six-year old white mother figure (Terry O’Neill) for the leadership of the National Organization of Woman (NOW) too convenient a plot line to ignore. But in that case, why is her story titled “Matricide”? Was “Infanticide” too political, “Suicide” too gender-neutral?
But let’s not get caught up in things like coherent representations, apt illustrations, and basic definitions. Let’s instead address the main thrust of Faludi’s screed, which is that “over and over, the transit of feminism seems to founder in the treacherous straits of mother-daughter relations. Over and over, a younger generation disavows the women’s movement as a daughter disowns her mother.” According to Faludi, universal sisterhood was lost after the late 19th/early 20th century age of women-led reform movements. And this was a bad thing. For “how can women ever vanquish their external enemies when they are intent on blowing up their own house?”
Of course Faludi, in writing an article proclaiming “Matricide!” is partisan to this destruction. Case in point: my own experience. The hazy warm glow I’d retained from the women’s health movement was blown away by the Faludi’s diatribe. The very act of reading polarized me into the younger generation’s camp: defenses up, teeth bared, dare I say claws ready? I was prepared to do anything to aggressively defend my right to take a divergent path and alternative ideology from an older feminist generation.
But why does Faludi think women challenging women means a failure of feminism? Part of the problem is that she doesn’t differentiate between ideals, issues, and organizational structures. I think my generation shares many of the same ideals as an older generation, but the specific issues we face and the way we organize to advocate for those ideas have necessarily shifted in response to our changed historical circumstances. Slate recently asked a number of feminist writers what “feminism” is, given its recent appropriation by various grizzly bear characters like Sarah Palin. Katha Pollitt, born 1949, expressed ideals that I think transcend recent American feminist generations:
Feminism is a social justice movement dedicated to the social, political, economic, and cultural equality of women and men, and to the right of every woman to set her own course in life.
What is different is how my generation tries to advocate for those issues. Rather than working in umbrella women’s organizations, women today are more likely to be dispersed in issue-based activism, often working alongside men. They also may be less visible “on the street,” since so much action today takes place online. As Courtney Martin wrote at feministing.com in response to Faludi’s piece:
If you want to find feminism-in-action,you need to go where some of the most dynamic work is–environmental justice meetings where young leaders are talking about the disproportionate effects of climate change on women of color, safe houses for former sex workers where young women are helping one another get out of “the life,” veterans who are bonding together to fight back against military sexual assault etc. There are young, feminist-identified women doing community and political work every single day, aware of their legacy and confident about their future.
Is this de-ghettoization just re-submission to the patriarchy? Funnily, while Faludi sees women as constantly evolving creatures (signaled by their ritual maternal defenestration), the men in her narrative stay static. While gender relations are still far from equal, I agree with historian Elaine Tyler May, who argues in America and the Pill that American masculinity has evolved with American femininity as a result of the feminist and sexual revolutions.
No matter, Faludi is still put off by blogs, depressed by Lady Gaga, because they are signs of betrayal and incoherence. But let’s humor her, let’s take a closer look at what this ideal mother-daughter unity looks like. Because it’s important to think about the fact that what Faludi is actually lamenting is our loss of the late 19th century reformist mother-daughter team:
By expanding their orbit of influence into the public realm, nineteenth-century female reformers set out to disrupt the male protection racket’s reign. They would deliver their daughters from both the rapist and the savior. Through temperance, abolition, and anti-prostitution campaigns, they took the male rescue fantasy and recast it as a mother-daughter emancipation drama.
But wait, wasn’t this relationship structured and sustained by a patriarchy that gave middle-class, white women few outlets besides maternalist reform? Wait, wasn’t this only a movement of middle-class, white women, which excluded working-class and women of color, who by the way, had long been working actors within the “public sphere”?
Details. Moving on. Who is to blame for the loss of this unity? Who committed the first act of matricide?
The legacy of the 1920s feminist betrayal haunts modern feminist life… The prevailing pageantry of the 1920s wasn’t simply an infantilization of the girl. It was, more ominously, an eviction of the mother… Even as the second wave appeared on the surface to reject the intrusions of 1920s commercialism—the second wave’s first big demonstration was, after all, a protest against the Miss America pageant—it retained another 1920s code, not as an oversight but as a founding trait: the driving principle of matricide.
So first, Faludi has an obvious problem with a consumer society and the fragmentary nature of modernity itself. Strange that she automatically genders it female. No not strange; rather: misogynistic. I could also raise some historical quibbles: part of the reason 1920s women no longer sought to fight their mothers’ fight was that there was no fight left to fight: women’s suffrage had been won, and many feminists were at a loss as to what to do next, or thought there was no next. Further, this was the era of the “lost generation” with over 100,000 American men dead in Europe, and millions of soldiers returning from an experience of industrial killing and looser sexual mores. The 1920s didn’t see matricide, it saw the death of an old regime that had at long last snuffed itself out. Here’s an example: In 1916 the membership of the Women’s Peace Party, one of Faludi’s women’s reform movements, totaled close to 40,000. By war’s end, membership numbered only 100. Not because of matricide, but because most of its members had gone pro-war.
But never mind history. What is most distressing is that in her exuberant nostalgia for the coherence of mother-daughter sisterhood, Faludi rejects the value of fragmentation and pluralism — things she obviously thinks characterize my own generation.
Why must we assume that “universal sisterhood” is a strength and fragmented pluralism an ideological and practical weakness? What if it’s the other way around?
In her excellent 2001 book, Making Babies, Making Families: What Matters Most in an Age of Reproductive Technologies, Surrogacy, Adoption, and Same-Sex and Unwed Parents, Mary Shanley outlines a series of principles for the regulation of reproductive technologies in the U.S. While countries like Great Britain and Germany regulate contract pregnancies (surrogacy), gamete (egg or sperm) donation, artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, U.S. states let market forces determine who has access to these technologies, how much they pay, who the donor is, and so on. A “universal sisterhood” like Faludi’s might argue that women have the “right” to reproduction and if this imagined homogeneity of “women” wants to pay $8,000 for a 5’8”, ivy-educated, healthy white woman’s eggs, then that’s their right. But as Shanley points out, “the right to reproduce may mean that some people get the right to take advantage of others’ vulnerabilities.” This is important: Women have conflicting interests, and they’re not just generational. However, Shanley argues that pluralization doesn’t necessitate the failure of a coherent feminist program but instead allows the articulation of new principles to ensure greater equality.
Take egg donation as an example. Shanley thinks differential pricing in egg transfer should be prohibited as it validates the notion that some human attributes are “worth” more than others, which may result in the valuation of some women and their eggs over others. In terms of surrogacy, she fears that some women may become an exploited “breeding class” for their wealthier sisters and advises regulation of payments to surrogate mothers. A presumption of “universal sisterhood” might blind us to these conflicting interests of woman donor vs. woman receiver, leading us to negligently ignore how problematic it is to allow a dominant class of women to determine and constrain the options of other women. A recognition of pluralism forces us to hammer out a policy solution that addresses the concerns of all women involved.
Of course what is especially perplexing about Faludi’s piece is that the Second Wave also saw and worked to address the contradictions inherent in “universal sisterhood.” Let me take a moment to get warm and glow-y about the second wave women’s health movement again. In the mid-70s, Wendy Sanford, an author of the chapters “Sexuality,” “Body Image,” and “Women Loving Women” in Our Bodies, Ourselves responded to a letter from a woman who had decided to have an abortion because her child would have Tay-Sachs. The woman found the book’s chapter on abortion off-putting because it only addressed women who chose abortion for an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy, not those who decided to abort a very much wanted pregnancy. Sanford wrote back:
I feel very much humbled by your letter of August, and I appreciate the time you took to help us make the abortion chapter of Our Bodies, Ourselves more careful and compassionate. It is letters like yours that help us make the book better, but it is always a sorrow for us that someone suffered for what we did or didn’t say.
Working as Sanford did to relate across difference rather than through mimicry seems to me to be fundamental to any feminism able to encompass a pluralism of women whose experiences, as a result of both historical contingency and increased freedom, are multiple and thankfully divergent.
Now for the hell of it, and because she seems to so mightily discomfit Faludi, let’s end with some Lady Gaga, whose unexpected actions, whose potentially hidden penis, may be doing either great or terrible things for women. It depends who you talk to:
Update: Although, if we want to get a sense of what matricide actually looks like, we should end with Elektra’s “death dance,” the final scene in Richard Strauss’s opera, Elektra (libretto by Hugo von Hofmannstahl). After her brother kills her mother and Elektra’s thirst for vegeance is satisfied, Elektra dances herself into a frenzy and then collapses dead. Voilà:
A few years ago I saw Christopher Hitchens speak about his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square. It was about 6 pm, and Hitch has hammered. Glassy eyed and on unsteady legs, Hitchens delivered a marvelous address, both interesting and hilarious.
I certainly don’t agree with all his positions, but I admire his skill with the pen and his role as provocateur. And after reading this uncharitable interview, I discovered we have something in common. The author, Decca Aitkenhead, notes:
When the invasion of Iraq was first debated, one couldn’t fail to notice the preponderance of left-wing men of a certain age who came out in support of the war. Radicals as adults, but often from conservative backgrounds, now beginning to confront their own mortality, and preoccupied by masculinity and legacy, their palpable thrill about military might suggested that, deep down, they secretly feared progressive principles were for pussies. Now here was their chance, before it was too late, to prove their manhood.
In 2006, Hitchens’ wife, the American writer Carol Blue, told the New Yorker her husband was one of “those men who were never really in battle and wished they had been. There’s a whole tough-guy, ‘I am violent, I will use violence, I will take some of these people out before I die’ talk, which is key to his psychology – I don’t care what he says. I think it is partly to do with his upbringing.”
Is there any truth in what his wife said? He pauses for a second. Then, unexpectedly: “Yeah. Yes. One of the things I’ve realised, writing the book, is that it has to be true.”
I was a left-wing man of a much younger age then, but I also supported the Iraq War. I’ve though about this a lot over the years. I certainly think it has something to do with my particular Canadian-Jewish upbringing: I grew up in a household where the major war of interest was not Vietnam, but World War II, the “good war.” Both my grandparents and my great uncle had fought in it, for either Poland or the Soviets or both. The other wars I knew about, of course, were Israel’s wars, chiefly the War of Independence, the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, all understood by my uncritical Zionist mind as righteous struggles for Israel’s survival.
Like many a young Jewish boy though, I had my issues with masculinity. Growing up, I never much cared for Sesame Street, but loved He-Man and G.I. Joe. I became a big boxing fan. In college, I read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, and was struck by the final section, where Alexander Portnoy visits Israel and exclaims, “Here we’re the WASPs!” Visiting Israel myself, seeing the proud Jewish men (often really boys) in uniforms, armed with M-16s, I was in awe of the macho Sabra ideal even before I read Leon Uris’ Exodus, which only happened a few years later.
When Matt Taibbi wrote this post, excoriating David Brooks for his attributing a militaristic “Christian” zeal to George W. Bush and even Barack Obama in their leadership in the War on Terror. The religion that jumped out at me, though, when I read the piece, was not Christianity but Judaism. First Taibbi admitted that his attitude towards Brooks “is colored by certain strong feelings… about his appearance–he just looks like a professional groveler/ass-kisser.” Taibbi went on:
Brooks is the kind of character who has thrived everywhere he’s lived throughout human history; it’s incredibly easy to imagine the nebbishy, hairy-kneed Gaius Domitus Brooksius strolling through Rome and swelling with pride over his new appointment to the post of Senior Licker of the Caligulan butt crack.
Taibbi’s use of the word nebbish was telling. Later, he employed the term again:
Brooks is a perfect example of the kind of spineless Beltway geek we always see beating the war drum at times like these. It’s because nebbishly [sic] little dorks like Brooks and Paul Wolfowitz and David Frum got their books dumped in high school that we end up dropping daisy cutters on Afghan sheep herds and shipping working class American kids halfway around the world to get their nuts blown off. That sounds like a simplistic explanation, but anyone who doesn’t have a keen ear for the pencil-pusher’s eternal quest for macho cred is going to have a hard time understanding Washington politics.
When I first read this, an alarm went off in my head: “Brooks and Paul Wolfowitz and David Frum,” Jew, Jew, Jew. I looked at Taibbi’s wikipedia page, and noted that he had played some form of professional basketball and baseball. Here was the cool, hip goyish athlete, picking on the nerdy, nebbishy Jews.
This resonated with me because I had been there, even if I went to an all-Jewish high school and the bullies there were Jews too. I don’t think Taibbi is an antisemite. In fact, I think he’s on to something, but he veered off track when focusing on “Christian Warriors.” He was right to identify the “pencil-pusher’s eternal quest for macho cred” but it’s very often a Jewish quest, including Brooks and Wolfowitz and Frum but also Hitchens (despite his being anti-Zionist) and undoubtedly many others. I know it because I felt it, and still feel it, even if my views on particular military conflicts have changed.