“American Idea” excludes women

This month The Atlantic had a fascinating article by Yoni Appelbaum in which he ruminated about the lack of enthusiasm some Americans feel for democracy as an idea. In all its two or three thousand words, not one was the word “woman”.  This is not in itself unusual among political historians — one can read entire histories of European societies which were apparently populated only by men, and historians have been erasing women’s histories since they began applying their pens to paper.

But this substantial essay occupying the “Dispatches” slot in the magazine occurred in a year when the election was polarized between “woman” and “anti-woman”, when sexism determined the outcome of the election, when an orange orangutang’s visible misogyny was accepted and reiterated by a majority of white men and a majority of their white wives. That an essay on American democracy could not contain a single reference to “woman” in a year when the election of a blissful woman-hater  led directly to 2.5 million people, mostly women, marching in cities around the world for the sake of democracy — that’s  about as careless as a man can be.

What kind of blindness is it that leads a man like Appelbaum to open his drapes on January 21 and not see the hundred thousand women in pink “pussy hats” thronging the streets of his city? What did he see instead?

Appelbaum refers to statistics indicating two thirds of people born after 1980 do not place the highest value on living in a democracy and do not think civil rights are needed to protect people’s liberties. Who are those young — well, youngish — people? Surely those statistics were broken down by race and gender, perhaps by education level? I’m betting not a single African-American woman is complacent about democracy. The consequences of patriarchal authoritarianism haven’t bled out of her system yet, surely.

In a time when American politics is polarized not just between left and right, but between male and female and between white and non-white, and when those categories align so that right means male and white, and left at least includes female and non-white, I’m betting those not repulsed by the idea of living in an authoritarian state are exclusively white right-wing male pseudo-Christians and their unfortunate stepford wives.

It is telling of the unforgiveable ignorance of men that Appelbaum, a man who has spent years as a professional political commentator in Washington, is not aware that democracy, as an idea, is being fought for harder now than it has been fought for in a long time — by those who always fight for democracy, that is, by the oppressed.

Democracy has never been the ideal of wealthy power-brokers. Democracy has been forced on them bit by bit over hundreds of years through the growing power of less-powerful groups. First aristocrats wrested some democratic rights from absolute monarchs, then the gentry, the bourgeousie, the merchant classes managed to extend democracy to include them. Eventually non-landowners, and non-white males were included in democracies in the west. The hardest fight, though, was always that waged by women.

Women, particularly women of colour, are still the most oppressed group in America and their access to democracy is minimal. They can vote, yes, but not for women. There are almost no women to vote for and that says everything about American men.

Appelbaum’s entire essay is a lie by over-generalization. It’s not young people who are complacent — it’s the inheritors of priviledge who are complacent. It’s white men who see democracy isn’t giving them the wealth, status and priviledge that their ancestors got from the vote. They’re simply thinking that maybe a return to brute patriarchy will give it to them.



The ten-letter word no man speaks

As I was reading last month’s Atlantic magazine, I was struck by what was actually being discussed in several articles, without being named in any of them.

For example, in “Breaking Faith”, Peter Beinart examined possible consequences of declining church-going among the “religious” right. He quotes a sociologist: “Many conservative, Protestant white men who are only nominally attached to a church struggle in today’s world. They have traditional aspirations but often have difficulty holding down a job, getting and staying married, and otherwise forging real and abiding ties in their community. The culture and economy have shifted in ways that have marooned them with traditional aspirations unrealized in their real-world lives.”

What exactly are these “traditional” ambitions? Are they morally neutral? These white men replace intolerance for some categories of people (i.e. homosexuals) with intolerance of other categories (i.e.ethnic minorities), he notes.

Beinart concludes that maybe these white men are more overtly discontent now because they haven’t imbibed “the values of hierarchy, authority and tradition that churches instill.”

S’okay … anybody see any circular reasoning here? Men with unmet traditional aspirations suffer from the lack of tradition that churches instill? Men intolerant of those they see as their inferiors suffer from the lack of hierarchy that churches instill?

It’s tough to argue logically when you can’t bring yourself to name the problem you’re trying to analyze. Beinart is actually suggesting that one form of patriarchy could ease the problems caused by the lessening of another form of patriarchy. I don’t think so.

The “traditional aspirations” of white men, church-going or not, are to be top of the heap. If white men can’t all be president of something, at least they can be head of a household, in charge of women and children. Or maybe head of a town council, or a school, or a school board. But. goddam it, what white men want is to be in charge. They want the recognition of their superior capability, they want the control, they want the privilege and the status. And they’re not getting it. Boo hoo. (Unless they’re in the tech industry where they’ve forcibly created a whole  vacuum-packed environment that duplicates the social patriarchies of a hundred years ago — the subject of another article in the same issue)

Only a man could fail to see that these “traditional aspirations” are by no means morally neutral. If you value equality and freedom, as Americans claim too, you cannot say that hierarchies are without moral consequence. Power corrupts, as the adage goes, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. A man given sole power in a family is a menace to that family.

If these white men have trouble getting married, or staying married, it’s highly likely there’s something women find unsavoury about them. Probably that something is a neediness for power and control. Self-respecting women find such a quality pitiful. These men are probably stuck in  patriarchal male gender restrictions: don’t show your feelings, better yet don’t have feelings. If you have to have a feeling, make it anger. Just to name one such restriction.

The authority and hierarchy of Christian institutionalized churches has been used to legitimize political and social masculine authority and hierarchy. Sending these lapsed Christians back to church is not likely to solve the problem.

What we really need is a much more comprehensive knowledge of patriarchy, and men willing to analyze patriarchy without shame. We need school courses on the History of Patriarchy, sociology courses on variations of patriarchy across cultures and times, anthropological courses on patriarchy, philosophy courses on patriarchy. Women’s studies courses have, in the past fifty or so years, tried to cover all these bases, but there’s too much. Way too much. And now women know something about patriarchy, but all those men who did not take women’s studies in college don’t.

Patriarchy is as water is for fish. It’s such a given, so omni-present, so apparently necessary, so much just “the way things are” that it’s invisible, especially though not exclusively to men. One seeming result is that men are ashamed of it. They appear to think they’re personally responsible for it. The fact is that the values of patriarchy, while originally created by men for men, have become so thoroughly propagated that everyone lives them, largely without questioning them. Only a tiny fragment of any given population actually and intelligently wants to smash the patriarchy. The rest of those who complain about male power just want to massage it, open it up a bit so women can have more control over their own lives. They don’t know the full extent to which patriarchy suffocates, constricts, enslaves and kills.

Truly spiritual people do, as it turns out. Men like Jesus, and countless prophets, saints, sages of all cultures have tried to warn men to give up their patriarchal values. The teachings of Jesus are largely in praise of the qualities men have derided as “feminine”: be compassionate, non-judgmental servants of your fellow humans. And, really, isn’t this what those intolerant, dissatisfied shouting white men need more than anything else?

The Real Enemy of Democracy

A clutch of synonyms is making the rounds of the media these days: populist, nationalist, traditionalist, right wing, alt-right, authoritarian. Pundits choose one, but it doesn’t really matter which. They’re all substitutes for the one word they don’t care to use – patriarchal.

The March edition of The Atlantic quotes a pair of male researchers who have concluded that ”alienation and fear of civilizational collapse have eroded  . . . faith in democracy, and created a yearning for a strongman who can stave off catastrophe.” Sociologists like the term “strongman” for its perceived moral neutrality.

Patriarchy – the cult of the strongman – has been trying to hide itself for the last fifty years or so.

In white western cultures, it has been shamed, repeatedly. Banned from making jokes at the expense of wives, mothers-in-law, unmarried women past the expiry date, patriarchy has hung its head in shame and acquiesced to more respectful speech and behaviour.

Despite male attempts to shame the shamers by dismissing respect as mere political correctness, respect has gained some ground. It’s not okay to grab women’s backsides in the office anymore. And demanding that white men show respect for women has led to further demands: respect for people of ethnic minorities, and the disabled,  lesbians and gay men, and now “queer non-binaries”.

The multi-headed monster that is patriarchy is not happy. It has been shifting just under the surface in its multiple hiding places. A mere 70-odd years after the second world war, the logical culmination of unadulterated western patriarchy, some of its heads have broken the surface and discovered other heads. And they are communicating in chat caves online.

And the rest of us have to face the horrifying reality that what we thought had been diminishing had only been growing out of sight.

To take a word out of the plate, when people talk about wanting a return to traditional values, what they mean is a return to a more brutal and unashamed patriarchy.

I think there’s a lack of understanding of what patriarchy actually is. Most people seem to believe it’s simply a system that prioritizes men, or that regards men as superior to women. That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately this is the patriarchy we’ve been attempting to eradicate since first wave feminists fought for the vote.

Almost all gains made for women – the vote, the right to work, the right to credit, the right to divorce, the right to sign contracts, the right to work free of sexual harassment, the right to reproductive control, the right to education – have been levelling measures, edging women closer to equality with men.

The equilibrium is unstable, with various of these rights under threat. That’s because the deeper layers of patriarchy have not been addressed.

Patriarchy is not just about a claim that men are superior to or more valuable than women. It’s a larger claim that “masculine” characteristics are more important and superior to “feminine” characteristics. The former are those qualities needed in a militaristic societies, in which men kill other men to claim their property, which includes their women. Think of the qualities of a fighter,  think of the qualities of gang leaders who, along with their followers, are still living this kind of life.

In patriarchal societies at their most brutal, only men are allowed to possess strength, greed, lust, leadership, power. Men who don’t are weeded out quickly. Women are expected to acquire those qualities needed by male fighters, which include compassion and tenderness, the willingness to breed and to have sex on demand, to cook, sew and clean.

So far the fight against patriarchy has been limited to allowing more women to enter the male world of striving, competing, earning. It has become more acceptable for women to be strong, decisive, partners with men in the public realms. American television shows us exactly what men are willing to accept – police shows, law shows and doctor shows all show us women acting pretty much just like men. The men themselves have not changed. And the women continue to be sexually desirable, their “femininity” on full display.

The most distinctive attribute of patriarchy is hierarchy. Men create ladders of achievement and require other men to know where they stand on the ladder. They reward those at the top with status, and the accoutrements of status, which include wealth and the “best” women.

Democracy, the leveling out of the hierarchies, is antithetical to patriarchy.

Given that men created democracy, this may come as a surprise, but the history of western democracy is a history of power shared as little as possible with the smallest number. First the  most powerful men, often the monarch and his closest allies, were forced to cede power to those just below them in wealth and status and strength.  After the powerful landholders gained power, those immediately below them, the bourgeoisie or the rising mercantile class, demanded a share of power. Eventually all landholding men got representation, then all men, then, in America, black men and finally women. The sharing of power, by way of the vote, never came easily or without a struggle.

Democracy is, in fact, a “feminine” force. It presumes that all people in society are of value, regardless of wealth or status. In that way it is an expression of compassion and of communalism. It takes great magnanimity of heart to give the least among us a voice in how we all live.

Those who are expressing a longing for a return to a more brutal and open patriarchy are giving notice that they have lost the heart to care about their neighbours. They are willing for the weak and vulnerable to be oppressed. They are willing for women to be the property of whoever has the force of arms to possess them. If they think the “strongman” will protect them, they are dead wrong. In primitive patriarchies, the weak are the losers and they’re treated with the contempt the winners think they deserve.

Life under unapologetic patriarchy has always been brutal for the majority, so brutal that patriarchs have invented religions to bolster the case for their power. They’ve conceptualized the Creator of all life as male, a disembodied representative of toxic masculinity who punishes those who don’t obey. Fear of the afterlife is required to subdue the masses of oppressed.

Human beings have not yet had anything that comes close to civilization. Male anthropologists have been happy to refer to the empires of the Mayans, the Aztecs, the Persians, the Romans, the Chinese as great civilizations of the past, but each has been a brutal patriarchy that relied on mass slavery, murder and fear of the afterlife to prop up a handful of the ultra-wealthy. A few works of art and architecture don’t make a civilization.

The current nostalgia for the cult of the strongman ignores thousands of years of history. The winners will be the wealthiest and their cronies. And they won’t share. Far from saving civilization, unapologetic patriarchy will destroy it, as it always has done, over and over, as long as people have lived under the thumb of “strongmen”.

When you’re a president, you can do anything

As a private citizen:

And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. . . Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

As the President:

When you’re the president of the U.S.A., you can yell at them, insult them, humiliate them, they let you do it. Grab ’em by the balls. You can do anything.

He hasn’t said it in words (or at least no one has reported him saying it), but his actions toward other heads of state convey the message pretty clearly, don’t you think?

Somewhere in the depth of every bully, every autocrat, every fascist wannabe, there is a misogynist, an active abuser of women. And still our legal apparatus, from beat cops to lawyers to judges, refuse to treat attacks on women as “real” crime.

Long ago psychologists figured out that little boys who pull the wings off flies, or who torment small animals, are likely to grow up to do harm to human beings. It shouldn’t be news to anyone that men who torment women are also likely to do harm to men if and when they can.

A man who hates women enough to beat them, or stalk them, or harass them, or sexually assault them, or coerce them into sex, or rape them — a man who hates women that much is full up with hatred. He hates everyone.

He attacks women in part because he can. He’s a bully and women are weak enough for him to target. But he’s a bully and he’s filled with hatred. If he has any power in the world of men, he’ll be an abusive bully there as well.

If you can stop him when he’s hurting a small animal, that is the time to stop him. If you can stop him when he’s attacking a woman, that is the time to stop him.

Will you men please stop thinking of crimes against women as being about the victims? Think of them as being about the perpetrator, the man who is a danger to you too. Think about how much better your world would be if there were no hate-filled and dangerous bullies in it.

How a 16th century religious renegade influenced the American election

When you hear Betsy DeVos and other still wet-behind-the-ears Republicans in the U.S. talk about making gains for “the kingdom”, as I have recently (see this article), you need to know that she’s referring to a central obligation of all Christians whose denominations have their origins with John Calvin.

For those who’ve never heard of Calvin, he was a 16th century Frenchman who moved to Geneva at a time when new protestant ideas were challenging the Roman Catholicism that had united “Christendom” for a thousand or so years. While influenced by the German Martin Luther, Calvin had several distinct ideas of his own. Those ideas have been passed down in the many strands of Protestantism that have survived to the present day. Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Reformed denominations all owe their start to Calvin. The originators of these denominations all met with either Calvin himself, or his disciples after his death. The “Puritans” who colonized Massachusetts in the  and 17th century were Calvinists, and thanks to them Calvinism got its first foothold in the North American continent. It is a continuing force in huge swaths of the southern and central U.S.

The primary duty of Calvinists is to create “the kingdom of God” on earth. What exactly does that mean, and can they possibly be plotting to turn the most powerful and most technologically advanced nation on earth in the 21st century into a “kingdom of God”? What it means seems to a critical thinker to be an impossibility. The kingdom of god is a place, whether town, state, or nation, where all citizens follow a set of supposedly God-given rules, rules delineated by Calvin himself, with some reference to Mosaic law, including the ten commandments.

Calvin was kicked out of Geneva the first time he went there. When he returned a few years later, he had struck an agreement with the city’s secular rulers. They would use the full weight of the city’s law and order apparatus to back the new church’s rules of behavior. He needed the backing of the secular powers because no one except a Calvinist would want to follow his extensive list of rules meant to regulate daily, private behavior in ways unheard of before then.

It was under Calvin that premarital sex, adultery and “sodomy” were judged illegal and were punished by the state. Thousands of people were imprisoned – by the state – for those newly-minted crimes as well as for such crimes as failing to attend church services, being too noisy in church, or leaving early. Hundreds of people were executed for failing to conform, and thousands more exiled from the city, from their homes — which were often their means of making a living. When you’ve forced all people to conform to your rules and exiled or executed those who won’t, have you created anything that could be described as a “kingdom of god”? I would say no; I would say that you’ve simply created a totalitarian regime whose citizens have very little freedom.

But Calvin’s experience in Geneva may explain why contemporary American religious Republicans backed such an immoral man as Trump. They don’t need to care about the state of his soul. All they need is a political leader who will put the whole law and order apparatus to work on behalf of Calvinist religious law.

The first step will be to make abortion illegal. Likely they’ll then try to make birth control illegal, as they move to what they really want – to make pre and extra marital sex illegal. They want to mandate heterosexual marriage for all, with homosexuality punishable by the state. Who knows what else will follow, but be sure they will be enforcing their idea of religious law, not purely secular law.

Those on the religious right in America will never ever be democrats. The Calvinism at the heart of their religion is not democratic. Calvin’s primary conviction was that God had chosen a tiny fraction of humanity to be the “elect”, those who would, after a lifetime on earth, spend a blissful eternity in heaven. God chose those people before they were born, before time even. Nothing they can do will reverse His decision. So Calvinists see themselves as the chosen people, and they see everyone else as saps doomed to spend eternity in hell. That means no one but them actually matters. You and I – we don’t matter. We don’t even matter to God, except insofar as He might be looking forward to torturing us endlessly, eternally in the hereafter. So where is the point to compassion? If even God doesn’t have compassion, why should the chosen ones?

Given that only a tiny sliver of humanity matters, you might wonder why they feel they need to create the “kingdom of god” on earth, why not just withdraw from society at large? The answer is they are concerned about the wrath of this God. He is likely to send down punishment on sinning unbelievers, and that punishment might affect his chosen ones. They are concerned about their own material well-being.

Calvinist communities are self-righteous, certain of their salvation. They are, ultimately, closed communities, survivalists of the afterlife. I suppose that they imagine they will be happy in eternity, even as they know that for every one of them, a hundred or a thousand other humans are suffering agonizing torture.

This leads to the question of what kind of God they worship. A Creator who created and still creates billions and billions of human beings for the express purpose of torturing most of them for all eternity? What kind of being is that? I’d call Him (and he’s definitely male) a sadist. There’s really no other term for such a being, is there?

Thomas Jefferson had something to say about Calvinists, even as he ensured their freedom of religion. Speaking to John Adams, he said:

I can never join Calvin … his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in the five points [of Calvinist doctrine] is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world, but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin.*

Wouldn’t we be better off remembering the words of Jesus and numerous other messengers of the Divine: learn to love – your neighbor, yourself, and the great Creator of all. Create a nation whose citizens practice compassion above all else, and you will create a “kingdom of god” on earth. A  kingdom of god is a kingdom of love.


Note: While I grew up within a Calvinist Reformed church (the same one as Betsy DeVos), the facts described in this post, as well as the quote, come from The Oxford Illustrated History of The Reformation, edited by Peter Marshall and published in 2015.





Loyalty or Sycophantism?

In the past week I’ve been hearing the media say that Donald Trump values loyalty over anything else in the people he works with. It’s because of his desire for loyalty that he wants his sons and son-in-law on his transition team, the media reports. I think this is one example of the media “normalizing” a pathological man’s unacceptable behaviour.

Loyalty sounds like such a great thing, doesn’t it? We all want loyal friends and partners. Surely loyalty is a virtue?

I’ve been a skeptic of loyalty since I was a child, when I was excluded from a whole clique of grade-school girls because one of them didn’t like me, and the others closed ranks against me out of loyalty.

In adulthood I came to distinguish between loyalty to principle and loyalty to a person. Loyalty to principle seems like it can’t be a bad thing, in so far as a principle is a moral idea. In that case loyalty means commitment to a positive, valuable idea. I’ve come to realize that even that kind of loyalty can be destructive. But let me first talk about loyalty to a person.

We can all sympathize with a mother who supports and justifies a child who has gone wrong. It’s a sad, but more or less understandable thing, to see such a woman on television, arguing her son couldn’t have murdered so and so, or raped so and so because he’s a “good boy”. Her loyalty blinds her to the truth, and that is a problem with loyalty. But what if this mother hides her son so he can’t be tried and punished for his crime? Or if she blackmails or harms witnesses to the crime? In those cases her loyalty is destructive and immoral, right?

Loyalty is, worst of all, a condition of tribalism. The top dog of any group, whether it’s a nationality, an ethnic group, a criminal gang or a family demands loyalty, and when he does, he’s too often demanding unqualified support for his views and actions, no matter whether they’re morally positive, or destructive. He wants enablers. He wants sycophants.

This is what Trump wants. He’ll bring in people who won’t challenge his irrationality, his paranoia, his selfishness and his immaturity. Possibly the only “safe” people will be his family members  — unless he can find enough other people who share his irrationality, paranoia and selfishness – which will not be good for America.

To return to loyalty to a principle, let me bring up a criticism made of Hillary Clinton. People accused her of believing it’s possible to have a public and a private opinion on things. They thought that was a bad thing, a form of hypocrisy. But if you’re elected to serve all people, do you have a right to force your own personal opinion on all of them? Ideologues, people who are loyal to a principle without regard for people, believe they do. And so you get the rightwing pseudo-Christians who feel they have an obligation to make abortion illegal for everyone, possibly even some forms of birth control illegal for everyone. Pragmatists, on the other hand, and I believe Clinton is a pragmatist, believe you have to do the best you can to benefit the majority of people. A pragmatist, a believer in democracy, might then keep their own objection to abortion private, and allow the majority to vote their own conscience. If that means abortion is legal, so be it.

Ideologues are dangerous. They too are in thrall to primitive patriarchal tribalism, gang mentality that values fawning dogs and eliminates challengers.

These two things — the normalizing of loyalty as a valid top criteria for a leader, and the criticism of having differing private and public opinions — suggest that Americans don’t really know what democracy is, or what the conditions are for its existence. Democracy means people are free to have their own values and opinions, while bowing to the will of the majority. Democracy relies on constant challenges to power, not on sycophants who enable the powerful to operate against the best interests of all.

It seems appropriate to refer to the American philosopher, Josiah Royce, who developed an entire philosophy of loyalty:

      Royce observes that the highest moral achievements throughout history have             involved  individuals’ loyalty to ideals that promote the formation and expansion of communities of loyalty. Many of the worst deeds have also involved a high degree of loyalty, but this loyalty is directed exclusively to a particular group and is expressed in the destruction of the conditions for others’ loyal actions, of those other persons, and even of one’s own community and cause. Royce generalized the difference between true loyalty and vicious or “predatory” loyalty as follows:

a cause is good, not only for me, but for mankind, in so far as it is essentially a loyalty to loyalty, that is, an aid and a furtherance of loyalty in my fellows. It is an evil cause in so far as, despite the loyalty that it arouses in me, it is destructive of loyalty in the world of my fellows. (Royce 1995 [1908], 56)

All the communities we actually know, those we inhabit and identify with, are finite and to some degree “predatory” in Royce’s sense. This is clearly true of small social cliques, isolated intellectual communities, parochial religious groups, self-interested unions and corporations, local political movements, and other such groups. Roycean loyalty requires one to scrutinze the aims and actions of such communities and to work to reform their disloyal aspects. The philosophy of loyalty calls us first of all, then, to create and embrace more cosmopolitan and inclusionary communities. It should be clear that this is only the first important step of an infinite process aimed at realizing the ideal of universal loyalty.  (plato.stanford.edu/entries/royce/)


Remembering the dead

I’m so sick of people celebrating soldiers on Remembrance Day. War is a tool of patriarchy to maintain patriarchy. As a problem-solving tool it has failed utterly and totally for at least 15,000 years. Who but a man, conditioned to think that ‘might makes right’ would even dream up the idea that fighting would solve a problem?

I do not honour soldiers who we now piously say offered up their lives for the sake of freedom. Young men who sign up to learn to kill other human beings are dupes who’ve swallowed toxic ideas of what it means to be a man. Listen to this: real men don’t kill.

When countries now sign up to receive a contingent of U.N. peace-keeping forces, they know they’re sacrificing their women and children, who will be raped en masse by these “peacekeepers”. There is never peace for women.

There are those who say men fight to protect women. I think the recent American election has put the lie to that. Men fight to own women.

There was a brief time, in the 1960’s and 70’s, when young men refused to kill for the lies their countries told them. Those young men were applauded. What has happened since then?

I’ll tell you what’s happened. The forces of patriarchy regrouped and rebranded. They found new ways to entrap the young. So fascism, by all manner of false names, is on the rise.

If you want to use today to remember, then remember all the dead women and children whose bodies litter the promenades of the wealthy male industrialists.