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?

Expedience versus ethics

Emma Maitland: “men look first to what is expedient and then to what is right, while women look first to what is right and then to what is expedient.”

Emma Maitland was an elected member of the London School Board for nine years in the 1880’s. Serving with mostly men, she was in a good position to observe how elected men operated.

I’m thinking about her observation as I listen to two male members of the American Christian right justify their continuing support for Trump in the aftermath of his boasts about sexually assaulting women. I didn’t pay attention to who the first man was, but the second was #Ben Carson  . As I listened to him say Trump’s actions just didn’t matter because America was going off the rails and Republican solutions were needed, I heard him valuing expedience over ethics/morality/integrity, even legality.

I think we’re all drawn to the expedient solution, or to efficiency, as I’ve thought of it when I’ve seen it in my own workplace. Let some masterful commander just issue the rules, make the tough decisions, and get things done. It doesn’t rock my boat. It lets me continue life as usual, unless I’m one of the unlucky ones who needs to be let go, set adrift in the unemployment sea, even if it is two days before Christmas. Expedience acts swiftly, the clean cut, the thorough elimination of rot.

Expedience knows that if you topple the king, you have to kill all his sons as well, even the infant still at the breast. And you have to disable all his supporters, even if that means a purge of millions. Expedience is ruthless.

Just about the same time that Emma Maitland’s observations were printed for a new audience in a 1983 book, The Sexual Dynamics of History, we were all given the opportunity to learn that the personal is the political. Just as this phrase has no single author, it has no single meaning. Here’s my understanding of it: the character that you display in your private life will be the same character that informs your decisions and behaviours in your public roles.

If you cheat on your wife – if you make promises to her and break them behind her back – you will also cheat on the electorate. If you beat your wife, you’ll also abuse your employees and those whom you serve. If you take the attitude that you’re the most important person in your family, then that’s the attitude you will have if you’re elected to a public office or appointed to a high position in your place of employment.

Good leaders know that to lead is to serve. Bad ones believe that to lead is to be served. So you can tell by how someone lives their private lives, how they’ll live their public lives.

When Ben Carson and other men of the right say Trump’s illegal violations of people’s bodies is not important, they are ignoring his character. Do they really believe a bullying violator of personal boundaries is safe for anyone? He can be counted on to treat America as he treats women – he’ll violate it to satisfy his own pathetic ego needs, he’ll rape it to fill his own bank accounts, he’ll serve up charm with one hand while ramming it up the arse with his other, and he’ll silence it so he doesn’t have to take the backlash.

Character – meaning  ethical values, the ability to be honest,  integrity – informs everything we do. Choosing expedience over ethical character always maintains the status quo, with an extra dose of ruthless destruction. Maybe since women are always the greatest losers when expedience is on the rampage, we know better than men that change can only happen when the most elementary building block is personal integrity.

Masculine Anxiety and the Introjected Father


I have been reading what must now be a classic feminist philosophy text, Susan Bordo’s The Flight to Objectivity. In it she constructs a feminist argument about Descartes’ Meditations, a seminal work that she claims many (male) philosophers have not taken seriously enough. Descartes is, of course, considered the founder of our own age, of modernity. To understand the world I live in, I have to understand Descartes. For Bordo, The Meditations reveal a masculine cultural state of extreme anxiety, which Descartes solved, at least for himself, by repudiating the feminine (body) and masculinizing thought.

When Descartes wrote “I think therefore I am”, or the Latin that’s thus translated, he didn’t mean what we think. He wasn’t talking about an activity of the brain, logical argumentation, or the power of causal reasoning. But If I had read only his famous Discourse on the Method, I would believe that “I think, therefore I am” did indeed mean ‘I reason and therefore I am’.  He doesn’t elaborate on the verb “think” in his summation of The Meditations contained in The Discourse, he elevates reason above imagination and feeling, and he makes clear that he dedicated his life to learning to use reason correctly to arrive at truths. In both his treatises he compares nature and the human body to machines, with multiple references. It’s a barren view of physical reality. The universe is arid, even dead, as a clock is dead. It would appear he first created a mechanical universe, and then mechanical bodies to inhabit it.

But here’s what he said, in longer form, in the second of his Meditations:

“I am not more than a thing which thinks, that is to say a mind or a soul, or an understanding or a reason”, followed a page later by “What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, conceives, affirms, denies, will, refuses, which also imagines and feels.”

Notice that for him, the words “mind” and “soul” denote the same thing. In the third meditation he expands even more:

“I am a thing that thinks, that is to say, that doubts, affirms, denies, that knows a few things, that is ignorant of many, that loves, that hates, that wills, that desires, that also imagines and perceives.”

As Bordo notes, it was consciousness that he (re)discovered, an active incorporeal consciousness. Experiencing one’s own consciousness, any activity within it, confirms one’s own existence. And he rightly concludes that as a result the easiest thing for a human to know is him/herself. Everything outside the consciousness might be false, an illusion created by an “evil genius”, but we can be assured we exist when we doubt, or affirm, or deny or engage in any of the activities of consciousness.


Descartes (born in 1596) was thinking at a time when everything that people thought they knew had indeed been shown to be false. The period from 1400 to 1600 CE was probably the most tumultuous period in western history since the fall of Rome because of the destruction, on multiple fronts, of the monocular perspective that allowed a belief in absolutes.

During those two hundred years:

  • the population of Europe was halved by famine and bubonic plague
  • Luther, a monk frightened of death and even more frightened of his fear of death, ripped apart the “one true church”, thus initating a wholesale slaughter that lasted for 30 years. He also conceived a whole new God, one who predestined every event in his creation for as long as that creation existed. Humans were his chess pieces, each without the free will to determine his own life course, each without the responsibility for his crimes, or for his salvation. This God, it has been argued, was a cruel and indifferent genius.
  • the writings of ancient Greeks and Romans were rediscovered, hidden in Muslim libraries, and humanism, based on neoPlatonism, emerged as a new form of Christianity.
  • the printing press was invented, allowing lay people (not just monks) to read
  • Marco Polo travelled to China and back and the west began to find out about ancient Chinese knowledge and beliefs.
  • Muslims crowded the European borders, attempting to take Vienna to the east, and occupying southern Spain
  • Christopher Columbus encountered North and South America, and the alien cultures that flourished on those continents
  • Copernicus discovered the earth was not the centre of the universe. And Galileo’s telescope revealed that not all moons revolved around the earth.

In other words, all the long-held beliefs of Catholic Europe and England were challenged, were shown to be culture-specific, and even downright wrong. Ever since the conquests of European tribes by the Christian Romans, Europe and Britain had been unified by the Roman Catholic faith, and by the Latin language, and by the dense network of monastaries and churches, all of which provided a unifying set of beliefs and way of life. Life for humans all across Europe and Britain was punctuated by a whole host of holy days, which included various festivals and celebrations throughout the year.

Of particular note in the context of a woman’s study of history and of philosophy, Roman Catholicism had allowed a hallowed place for women. God might have been the “father” but the church was the “mother”. Nunneries were prolific, and mysticism was more common among religious women than men. Catholics could worship the feminine in God through Mary, the mother of God, and also through St. Anne, the mother of Mary. There were a host of female saints who could be appealed to for a variety of sufferings.

The Roman Catholic religion gave people the ‘right’ to function as nothing more than children, earning salvation through obedience and duty to father God and mother Church. The reformation, led by Luther and Calvin, was devastating to this familial concept of human life and particularly devastating to women.

Bordo argues that this is the context of “Cartesian anxiety”, an anxiety shared by the entire culture. This is the anxiety that provokes Descartes into asking about his own existence, and the existence of everything under the sun. How can I know anything exists, is his first question as a philosopher.

One can imagine the vertigo that might have resulted. People had envisioned the universe as a series of nested eggs: a circling sun, within that the circling stars and planets, then the moon, with earth perhaps as the yolk, with a little church embedded in that yoke, with tiny humans within that church, the beings for whom the entire egg had been created. And above all this, god brooding and clucking. What a home! Then people discovered it was all a mental concept, one of many wildly differing human mental concepts, and in many ways proven to be an illusion.

So where did Descartes go, once he had established the certainty of his own existence? He brought reality indoors, as it were, through the mechanism of “ideas”. All our ideas are reflections of outer reality. Rather than questioning the truth of outer reality, he questioned the truth of the ideas within his own consciousness. In order to answer in the affirmative, he needed God and he needed the concept that it is our will that affirms the truth of our ideas. How do we know that our will is correct in affirming the truth of any idea? His answer was that if the idea was irresistible to the will, then it must be true. But in order for that proposition to be true, he had to conceptualize a God who created people with a will that would not find the false irresistible.

Some philosophers have argued that this is a circular argument. How do we know x is true? Because our will finds it irresistible. Why does our will find it irresistible? Because it’s true. In any case, Descartes was following in the footsteps of Luther and Calvin, who had conceived of “inner conviction” as the measure of truth. This inner conviction, they said, was put in our heart by God.

These concepts, the “irresistible idea” and the “inner conviction”, both resting on God, are extremely dangerous concepts. This was a shift away from outer authority as evidence of Truth. Outer authority could mean the local priest, a church council or synod, or the Pope, all of whom spoke for God as they understood God. They were human “fathers” who stood in for the great, unknowable God the Father.

The developments of the reformation and the renaissance absconded with the father, in a manner of speaking. His representatives stopped being absolutely believable. For some he stopped existing at all in the form of priest or learned religious scholar. All that remained was  a distant unknown.

So I think with Bordo that it was a time in which an entire culture was faced with the need to grow up, to separate from a familial unity. Bordo argues that men were overwhelmed with separation anxiety from the mother, and as a psychological defence, repudiated her. But it seems  to me that, rather than directly repudiating the feminine, or the maternal, as Bordo argues, the culture reacted most forcibly to the now absent father.  The symbolic father, realized in the church fathers, and the pope, were now internalized or introjected as “inner conviction”. Introjection occurs when a person internalizes the ideas or voices of other people, particularly those in authority. Introjections involve attitudes, behaviors, emotions, and perceptions that are neither digested nor analyzed; they are simply adopted as a part of one’s personality as concepts that one considers should be believed or behaviors that one thinks ought to be followed. Introjection can be a defense mechanism adopted by a child whose parent becomes unavailable. The introjected parent becomes a substitute for the lost one. Because the ideas are not digested, a person in the grip of an internalized parent cannot be reasoned with. A destructive internalized concept is psychopathological – it drives us to do things for pathological reasons that we don’t understand ourselves, and that we can’t control or modify.

Descartes, and his contemporaries, went from one absolute to another, and I would suggest  “inner conviction” is far more capricious and unreliable than an outer authority. And the only argument against someone’s inner conviction is demonization. It becomes a trial of accusations of being led by the devil rather than by god. And that’s exactly what did happen – which led to mass slaughter.

Bordo’s main point is that Cartesian dualism – the absolute split between mind (consciousness) and body – was a masculinization process. Descartes did declare the mind to be clear and distinct and completely incorporeal and therefore separable from the limited, corporeal body. He was developing an argument, he says in The Discourse, to prove that the mind could live on after the body was dead.

But he does conclude The Meditations with a renewed belief in nature: “there is no doubt that in all things which nature teaches me there is some truth contained,” and a few lines later “Nature also teaches me by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst, etc., that I am not only lodged in my body as a pilot in a vessel, but that I am very closely united to it, and so to speak so intermingled with it that I seem to compose with it one whole.” This doesn’t seem to me to be a total repudiation of the body, or of nature.

Bordo, in her analysis, abandons The Meditations after the fourth; I would like to have seen her comment on the last two Meditations. And also on what male philosophers did with this Cartesian conception — how they elaborated on it, developed it, and used it to the advantage of men. Her book could have been three times as thick as it is.

I am also interested in Descartes views on imagination and feeling. He says that because it takes more effort to imagine than to conceive, the imagination is not essential to his nature and that he (a being that thinks) would remain the same without imagination. The same for feeling. So, finally, he claims that the “I”, the conscious being is separable from, and complete without body, imagination or feeling. Clearly he privileges the intellect and the will as essential to the self.

And yet, he says in the Discourse that he intends to spend the rest of his life searching for medical truths that will help people live healthy and long lives. These seem, on the surface, to be contradictory attitudes. With what medicine do you heal a clock?

My belief (at this point in my reading) is that the protestant reformation led the way in destroying the feminine aspect of the divine, and thus in destroying a place for women in public. The divine became again, in popular conception, a distant, remote, inscrutable and indifferent father/creator. Those who introjected this distant father figure might well have felt “he” repudiated the feminine and therefore were acting on his orders as they began a violent campaign against women, and against everything they saw as feminine.

It was, I think, religion rather than philosophy that was most to blame. Bordo writes that the century from 1550 to 1650 was a horrifically misogynist time, with most of the hatred centred on woman as mother. Thousands of old women were roasted for witchcraft. What caused it? Fear, of course. But was it fear of the power of woman, or fear of what “He”, the introjected Father, might think?



The Real Origin of Patriarchy

It’s only been about 50 years since women have been getting good educations in large numbers. It didn’t take them that long to realize that all  knowledge of the sort offered at universities is tainted by masculine subjectivity. It all needs to be rewritten — history, philosophy, anthropology, economics, biology — all of it is riddled with errors because there had been no women to correct the male scholars when they slid down the rabbit hole of masculine perspective. I’ve been reading feminist scholarship in all these areas, but what really interests me is what male scholarship says about masculinity. Here’s my first contribution to the examination of masculinity, and the rewriting of human history.

Imagine the first groups of humans, homo sapiens: small herds, though we can’t use that word now that the herd is human. There’s something different about these animals, something not just quantitative, but qualitative. Though scientists keep discovering more extinct species between chimps  and humans (homo erectus, homo heidelbergensis, neanderthal to name just a few), the moment of the change is hidden from us. What we know is that humans have a level of consciousness that far surpasses that of any non-human, living primate. Why and how?

Hindu wisdom says that the one consciousness that pervades and animates the universe is present in all creatures, but its expression is limited by the biology of the species — very limited in plants, less limited in fish, even less limited in mammals. Human biology –whether brain size alone or something else as well — allows the greatest known expression of this divine consciousness when it’s manifested in form.

I don’t know whether to believe this or not, but it’s a view of life I prefer. It may be that humans were simply created to have this capacity, that the change was by design, rather than by evolution (that presupposes a purpose-driven universal or ‘divine’ consciousness, of course). It’s true that anthropologists can now identify stages of increased cranial capacity and are speculating our capacity for intelligence increased over a period of a million years or so. It’s also true they’re guessing wildly with very little evidence.

Gendering is mutilating.

I think this level of consciousness, however it occurred, was a problem; I think it caused discomfort for the first humans – no, for the first human males. And I think those early men tried to solve the problem by mutilating themselves so they couldn’t experience the full consciousness available to them. For my view of what constitutes full human consciousness, click here. That mutilation was the gendering of consciousness. Bear with me, I’ll try to clarify how gendering is mutilating.

I know there’s (male) speculation that this gendering and the resultant patriarchal culture started when humans switched from living as hunter/gatherer tribes to living as settled farmer groups. The assumption is that the (male) landowners would have wanted to know who their children were so they could leave the land to them. There are a ton of patriarchal assumptions here. First, why would only men own the land? If it was the case, patriarchy was already established. Second, why would anyone own the land? Third why would it be left to a family member when the owner died? These last two questions presuppose the existence of capitalism, an off-shoot of patriarchy. For more on how we all suffer from masculine vision, click here.

I suggest an earlier alternative and I’ll try to explain why.

Here’s how it might have played out. The tribe has emerged from the trees, though I shouldn’t think they’ve gone too far away. This does not happen from one day to the next. Maybe it took a million years.

They’re in a cluster, the women and children, the centre of the tribe. If the tribe is an egg, the women  are the yolk. As with all mammalian species, the females are the most consistently important. The males come and go. They hang around the periphery, keeping an eye out for predators. That’s one of their two roles, the other being to impregnate the women when the women are in season.

There’s one significant difference between these intelligent humans and their ancestors – and it’s a significant part of the problem. Other primates live primarily by instinct. After a year or two of life, the young have received all the nurturing they need to augment instinct. They stop orienting themselves around their mother, or the mother encourages them to leave her close proximity. In the case of humans, instinct is largely replaced by experience, so human children need to spend a long time, eight to ten years, in proximity to their mother. So the group of women and children is a group with long-term bonds, and thus with considerable affection.

Men see themselves as the ‘other’

These males, we should call them “men” now, they have a consciousness that allows them to reflect on what they see, and to reflect on themselves as objects. They see the women as the group, they see the power in their group cohesion, they see that the women, with the children are a sort of home, created by bonds of support and affection.

They see that they are excluded.

And they would have been excluded to a large degree. There’s something deer-like about these early humans. In jungles and forests, their ancestors were not terribly vulnerable to predators. But these humans out on the plains are viewed by the large predators as prey. In consequence, the men need to maintain a constant vigilance. They needed to prowl the perimeter.

This is the second part of the problem. In the first, the women are spending years with their offspring, in the second, the men are spending the bulk of their time separated from the core of the tribe, the women and children.

So they see that they are excluded, and they are excluded from something valuable.

The men themselves don’t have bonds with each other, out there on the perimeter. They’re cautious and cagey, aware that the women will choose the best of them to mate with.

Because they have the awareness of humans, they begin to have feelings about this. They feel that the tribe of women and children is the “one”, and they are the “other”. Feelings of exclusion lead to feelings of loneliness, of exile, and eventually envy.

The sex that bears the children must be able to sustain life

The women, meantime, are learning more and more ways to maintain their own lives, and the lives of their offspring. They find the places where water appears, the places where various kinds of edible plants grow, possibly the places where they can gather insects for food, the places where medicinal plants grow. Because they are many, they can do these things even with young children around.

They learn to make “containers” to hold their babies close to their bodies, so their hands can remain free. And containers to hold the goods they find. Since they probably used plant material, we can assume they learned to weave. Once they learned how to process plants and how to weave,  all sorts of things followed. They might have learned to weave nets to trap small animals. And once they brought fire into their camps, they would have learned basic chemistry.The women, we can assume, followed their inventiveness and ingenuity. It’s safe to say they needed men for nothing other than procreation and protection. And this is as it should be. The sex that bears the children must be able to sustain those children. We see that in every mammalian species.

The bonds the women have with each other are developed and strengthened by the multiple ways women help each other. They support each other during pregnancy, and during the years of child-rearing, sharing the burdens. They learn all the benefits of cooperation, and evolution doesn’t create any pressure for them to compete with each other.

When men formed teams, they formed the most lethal force in nature.

Then something catastrophic happened: the men decided to hunt large and powerful animals. It required them to form teams. In forming teams, they formed the most powerful and lethal force in nature.

The formerly isolated men now found group cohesion. Within male groups they needed to balance competitiveness with cooperation. And they learned to sort themselves into self-selected hierarchies of leadership and followership. They also needed to practice the skills required to successfully kill large prey. We can assume they invented games for that practice, meaning that they spent more and more time together, competing and cooperating, leading and following.

What happened next is what destroyed this incipient humanity, mutilating both the men and the women.

As they invented game after game, and improved their group hunting, they reified their sense of power. The male physical power that had been necessary to maintain life grew in significance as it became a power that could take life away from dangerous animals and that could, more than ever before, establish dominance in a species that had the self-awareness to experience the repercussions of dominance.

From engaging in occasional fights and lesser posturings to establish dominance, the men now daily experienced the thrill of establishing and established dominance as they won or lost at games, were more or less important in the kill. They developed lust for the hunt, for the chase, for the competitions, for power.

The Hindu chakra system identifies the life force as traveling up the spine from the lowest to the highest chakra. They also identify the sexual force as traveling alongside the life force energy. One result of this proximity is that feelings of being most alive can be accompanied by feelings of sexual arousal.

We see, all the time, that men of power can easily become sexually promiscuous. There is strong evidence that the feeling of power awakens sexual energy. We can also see, all the time, that when women feel most “sexy”, they also feel most powerful.

It’s possible these associations are patriarchally created, but it’s also possible they are a result of energy channels in the body.

I think we can imagine that as early men experienced their power more and more, they also experienced the sexual urge more and more. If that were the case, they would have found women’s lack of interest an obstacle. Can we assume women were only interested during the fertile time of month, and only when they were not pregnant or lactating? Can we imagine a period of time when men and women were drastically out of sync in terms of sexual desire? A time when men began trying to use their power against the women, to force mating when women were not ready?

Women were the first slaves and the first private property

What we do know is that men began hunting other human beings. The teamwork they had learned, the love of the hunt, the love of power cumulatively led them to attack other gatherings of people. They killed the men and forcibly took the women. Historians now know that the first slaves were women.

We can imagine the men of a tribe taking their newly enslaved women back to the core of the tribe, the women and children who formed such a cohesive group, and whose evolution had not required the development of competition. Free women and enslaved women could not co-exist. The men would have satisfied their lust with their slaves. And I think they would each have claimed “ownership” of their quota, determined by their ranking in the hierarchy. This may have been the beginning of any kind of ownership, so that women were both the first slaves and the first private property.

Eventually the core women of the tribe would have had to align themselves with various of the men. And the men would now expect submission from these women, as they received submission from their slaves. And the powerful men would now expect the same deference from the women as they received from the less powerful men.

Male Power and dominance would have replaced female affection and cooperation as the force that held the tribe together and gave it its complexion and character.

In all of this, the men were finding a way to hide their original emotion wound, the feeling of loneliness and isolation, the feeling of being ‘other’. They voluntarily relinquished their affectional nature when they enslaved women, in favour of their aggressive nature. And from then on they denied the importance of affection. They walled off their hearts. And that is mutilation.

Since they now required women to interact with them in submissive ways, they also caused the mutilation of women, who were required to relinquish their power.

The gendering of the human had begun. Wholeness was replaced with partialness. And humans began covering up the wound of mutilation with the alienating structures of the ego.

…to be continued


That Day in Detroit


The mind creates reality by putting pieces together into a puzzle, synthesizing, and evaluating – sometimes from the slightest bits of evidence, the degree of an object’s attractiveness, the colour of the clothing, the quality of the atmosphere, one’s own background.

As the last embers of the twentieth century flickered, people in North America assumed a hesitant optimism. World wide wars were a thing of the past, the cold war was over, the wall torn down, the economy had slowed but still no one was starving, women owned their own money and were taking over the universities. Men had given up an inch or so of their territory and now feminism was a charred stick whose flames had burnt themselves into ashes.

So no one foresaw what happened that day in Detroit. And it was only a fluke that a traffic cam recorded it. Afterwards the national networks showed footage all across America and over the border into Canada too, via satellites and cable.

It was August 1999, evening rush hour on the Detroit Bridge. The television showed shots of heavy traffic on the road leading to the bridge. On the bridge, they saw traffic at a standstill, all lanes clogged. It was a hot summer twilight. The sun was setting as a glowing lump of liquid steel in the haze above the horizon. There was that eerie quiet that precedes night in heat.

It was quieter in people’s living rooms because the initial shots came from a soundless helicopter traffic camera. But that silence seemed familiar to viewers, normal, and it was almost a surprise when the studios switched to a closer camera with an active mike, and people could hear the car engines. Still, that was the only sound and there was an eeriness in that muffled growl made from a thousand car engines all revving at about the same speed in unison. A choir singing only one note.

The jammed bridge would have been only a dinner table anecdote if the camera hadn’t caught what happened, the off note in that seeming tranquility of humming engines in a scrap-metal twilight. The sun had just descended. The bridge lights came on, though they seemed as weak as candles against the background of a sky still flushed with the end of day. They would have seemed brighter if the camera had panned the other way, into the darker east.

The driver of a black four-door automobile got out of his car. It looked as though he might have just wanted a better look at the sky. But that was off. No-one looked at the sky, the trees, the river when they were stuck in a contrail of exhaust fumes on a hot metal span.  Then he approached the car ahead of him, a small foreign model, which was blocking two lanes as a result of having tried to change lanes before traffic came to a complete halt. He began shouting at the woman driver through her window. Then he began gesturing angrily at her. Quite suddenly he opened her door, reached in and grabbed her, by her shirt, or by a scarf she was wearing. It wasn’t clear. He threw her against the car.

By this point most viewers had sat up slightly. The camera operator was alert too. This wasn’t the usual traffic accident, but it promised the challenge of something, something moving, some kind of action, something more than just routine camera work. He saw the woman catch her breath after she hit the car. He saw her pull herself forward, shake the driver loose, open her mouth and start shouting angry words. She started to get back in the car. Then the man’s hands were on her again, he threw her backwards, and she was resting against the guard rail.

The camera man had to pivot to keep them both in view. Briefly he was grateful the street lights had come on. She opened into colour against the night sky. Blue blouse, orange capris, a design, paisley. Mules on her bare feet. She was straightening up when he threw her over. Even the camera operator was stunned. One minute she was in his sights, the next minute she was gone. He didn’t know where to point his camera, he quickly panned left, and right and finally drew back to catch the wider view.

Everything was the same as it had been. Rows of parked cars, a single person standing on the bridge, by the guard rail, walking now into the darker shadows where the cars were still waiting. There had never been a woman. But, there, the Toyota with its driver’s side door open. No one inside. An empty car with an open door. The camera operator stared at it too long, as if he expected something to emerge from it, some explanation, perhaps. So viewers stared into that empty car for a long time too. They saw the open purse on the passenger seat. The pastry partially hidden inside a crumpled wrapper on the dashboard. A string of beads hanging from the rearview mirror.

There was a lot of suspense in that shot. People weren’t used to such long still camera shots. They edited it, of course, for later newscasts, but people watching live got every minute. And it was almost in black and white. All it needed was a proper soundtrack — crescendo of violins, lurking drum beat — to be indistinguishable from some old film noir clip. Eventually the camera man pulled farther back.

Almost on-cue, more doors started opening. A man got out of a van. A bus driver opened his door and stepped down, looking around questioningly. People turned off their car engines and the growl faded.

I imagine people at home watching, jumping up at about that point, raising their arms, saying things to the set like “do something”. “Do something!” There wasn’t anything to do, and people on the scene knew it. They walked a few paces, around their cars mostly. They looked lost. Several looked over the bridge into the river below. What they saw was water. As usual.

By the time the 11 o’clock news came on, they’d found out her name, and so the newscasters could tell people who she was, that she was, what she was. Sort of. Her name was Emily Klein. She was 34 years old. She worked as a computer technician. Her colleagues said she was a friendly person, a responsible employee.

The newscasters spent more time on him. The man. The killer.

He was a black man, which reassured many viewers. In those days people labelled each other by colour, as though they were shoes. It was a code, though, people recognized they were actually talking about kinds of people, rather than colours, as people might discuss apples at first by colour, knowing all the time that the green apples and the red apples were actually Granny Smith’s and Macintosh’s, cooking apples and eating apples. In terms of people, black meant, to some people a “violent and without reason” kind. To others, it meant “a drug-addicted kind.” To the majority of people it simply meant “not my kind.” It was primarily because of that that the news episode fell, by the next day, under the news category of “racial problems”.

But that first night, nobody knew what category it belonged to. After the first few sentences, ending with “the exchange, including the physical assaults on the women, happened in full view of hundreds of motorists,” all the announcers said different things depending on which network they worked for. The ABC announcer said, “No one came to the woman’s assistance–” apparently tentatively categorizing the event as “apathy in America”. None of them could offer any explanation, although by that time their reporters had interviewed as many of the nearby motorists as they could find.

A problem was that there were no facts beyond what was visible to everyone in the video clip. A woman had been thrown off a bridge by a man, who was black, which hundreds of nearby people saw. And yet, which none of those hundreds of people actually saw.

We can’t see what we don’t understand. The images can’t find a route to the brain.  We see what we expect to see – our very vision is constructed by the world we live in. Nobody expected to see a man throw a woman off a bridge. They should have, though. They should have.

All of the motorists said they didn’t know what they were seeing, it happened so quickly. If they had known what was going to happen, they would have gotten out of their cars earlier. They wished they had gotten out of their cars earlier. Given this, the “apathy in America” angle could not be pursued and ABC dropped it.

The stations then focused on the problems of blacks in Detroit. As the case went to court, they were able to tell the public that the black man had just lost his job – he was also a computer technician — grew up in poverty, had an alcoholic father who was gone most of the time, had already evidenced a problem with anger management. This was his first criminal offense. It was too bad, they suggested, he had been on the right track. He was a black man who had been trying to overcome the odds. His temper was his downfall.

The talk shows, a kind of program that allowed the facts of the daily news to be digested and turned into a variety of opinions as a model to viewers, then focused on the various issues affecting black men in America. The more right-wing of the guests argued that a man’s background offered no reason for mercy, every man had a choice to kill or not to kill and owed it to society to behave in a reasonable manner. Those who could not should be executed.

The more liberal of the guests discussed the discouraging lack of improvement made in the lives of people who grow up in poverty and despair, and brought with them memorized statistics that over and over again revealed that change has to happen at the economic level, that children must not be permitted to grow up in poverty, that the state needs to spend money to stop the generational cycle of abuse.

Emily Klein was seen either as a victim of a “soft” society that failed to adequately punish criminals, or as a victim of a society that failed to alleviate the distress of its poorest members. Crime and punishment. Social welfare. Those were the realities the opinion-makers offered to the public.

We now know that these pundits were wrong. The straw, this tiny incident, was the straw of oppression. Of a woman. By a man. That people didn’t recognize it is not surprising; it is in the nature of straws that that they seem a minor irritant, something that causes a sneeze, something to be brushed away. “Oppression” was not a term used in American news broadcasts. We might say it was not a term in the American lexicon. There were no oppressors in the land of the free. Political analysts were more likely to talk about rebellion, revolt, terrorism — terms to describe what threatened the holders of power.

The language of a culture reveals what exists for that culture. The man on the bridge spat the word “bitch” to Emily Klein. He had language to invoke his enemy, a woman who threatened his power by blocking his way. Emily had no word for him. Had it been twenty years earlier, she might have had “male chauvinist pig,” but that phrase had disappeared from the language when enough feminists had gained enough power to regret coining a term that always sounded like jarring jingoism.

These little straws, insignificant though they seem, are almost the mightiest force in any society, as well as in any individual life. People are remarkably adaptable. They can, and do, adjust to almost anything, and this adaptability is the primary cause of people’s misery, of the misery and pain they inflict on each other. Even the most heinous criminal, a man for example who throws a woman off a bridge in a fit of pique, is revealing his adaptive powers.

People are adaptable in the same way that alcohol is addictive. They accept change in small increments, they accept their growing limitations, their growing frustration, their growing inability to be masters of their own lives in small increments. Eventually one of these small increments proves too much. They hit bottom, in the language of the support group, Alcoholics Anonymous. Their first task, when they stagger into whatever church basement is holding their nearest AA meeting, their first task is to give a name to their condition. The name they give is “helpless”.

The black murderer never did hit bottom.

He gave that honour to a woman.

She had no choice but to wear the badge, as she’d had no choice but to bear the spitting insult that conjured an enemy for a man who needed an enemy to conquer.

In a humane society no man would throw a woman from a bridge. Detroit was not a humane society. Neither was New York, or Los Angeles, or Chicago, or any major American city. And things were only going to get worse.

North Americans are notoriously literal-minded, which was why no one recognized the symbolism of the bridge. So they crawled, like so many beetles, toward the next century, blind to what was waiting for them.



Who is the Real Fingerpost?

I’d never heard of novelist Iain Pears until I stumbled across An Instance of the Fingerpost last week at a 50 cent stall. Turns out he’s a British author with a substantial reputation as a historian and detective writer. I really liked An Instance of the Fingerpost, which is a collection of four short novels, each telling substantially the same story from the perspectives of four different characters.

Telling a story from different points of view is a trope of post-modernism, and allows an author to reflect the limitations and biases of subjectivity. We can never know the truth, if there is such a thing, because we are all trapped within our own social constructions.

But this is not Pears’ objective, particularly. The first story, we find out later, is a collection of blatant lies, told to steer people away from a dangerous truth. The second story, we find out later, is told by a delusional man who suffers from hallucinations and is incarcerated in an insane asylum. We have no way of knowing these two stories are false versions of events until we are told by the third and fourth authors. The third story is told by a man who is both covering up a truth and so biased toward suspicion that he’s incapable of seeing anything for what it is. That leaves the fourth author, who claims the status of a “fingerpost”, an unbiased witness with nothing to gain or lose.

The stories of all four are focused on a woman. She figures in the plot in a straightforward way, but I wonder what Pears might be attempting to do metaphorically with her. Three of the men believe she holds papers, given by her dead father, with dangerous information. The last comes to believe that she is wisdom and compassion – in other words, the divine — embodied in human form. There’s a vast difference between knowledge and wisdom. The first three men fear the woman for her knowledge. Could Pears be saying something about the fear that men have of women? Do men fear being unmasked by women?

Historians don’t generally paint the mind-set of a given historical period. They tell us certain facts, and idealize certain men either for their actions or their discoveries or their philosophies. When it comes to the men of history, I think historians do what men in general do – look for heroes. I like what Mr. Wood, the teller of the fourth version, says about that. He is a historian and he comments on what philosophers say is the purpose of history, “to illustrate the noblest deeds of the greatest men.” He replies that few such men stand up to close examination. And when other philosophers say it is the job of historians to record the wonderful deeds performed by human instruments of the divine, he says “can we easily believe that such liars, brutes and hypocrites are His chosen instruments?”

So we, standing at the end of history, look back through a perspective constructed for us by men who not only want, but apparently need, to set up certain men as idols, as ideal men, who reassure men that to be a man is a good, important and significant thing. Anything that reveals their mere humanity, their flaws and failures, even their immorality is excised. And the context in which they lived and which created their motivations and innovations is removed, so that they stand as islands in an oceanic wasteland.

Their efforts make women invisible, and one has to wonder if what they’re really trying to erase is their fearful attachment to women. All this hero-construction and hero-worship seems like over-compensation. It’s also kind of looking like a heroic effort to fool women.

Fingerpost is peopled with many real figures of history and Pears plants them firmly in the mud of their time. One such figure is the philosopher John Locke, revered by male historians as one of the greatest philosophers in the English language. He’s portrayed in this novel as a more or less loutish sap who takes the word of a friend over that of a foreigner simply because that was the prejudice of the time. His empiricism doesn’t extend to the world of humans. He is also described by Wood as a man so used to living on the patronage of the wealthy, whom he despises, that he couldn’t give it up.

This strikes me as the kind of man who would patch together some of the enlightenment ideas already circulating in Europe together with some safe, conventional ideas to create a porridge so non-threatening to the established order that it could become the idea of the age. That, of course, is not how he was presented to me when I was studying English literature. It was expected that I would obediently regard him as one more male genius in a long line of men who created the best culture in the world.

The setting of the novel is a culture bagged and packaged in assumptions and in prejudice against the poor, the foreign and the feminine. Pears presents them so blandly that we can see how much they were simply “given” at the time. All four storytellers sneer at the lowly serving girl and accuse her of being a whore. Even Wood, after loving her for three years and being loved by her, almost immediately believes she is a whore simply because one man told him so, and because she had given herself to him. His friend tells him “such people as she are corrosive to any society, and must be known.” The attitude that men are not responsible for their lust is just part of the mud that the men and women of the novel live within.

All the male characters show their expectation that she, as a poor woman, know her place as inferior, dependent and necessarily obliging and obedient. Her refusal to acknowledge her subservience is shocking to them. She acts like an equal to the rich and the male and all the men in the novel are continual thrown off-balance, if not outraged, by it.

And yet, they are obsessed by her, as men often are by women. And isn’t it because men know, deep down, that they are peripheral to the species? Women are humanity. Women are central to humanity. If a single man visited a town of women once a year, the species would survive just fine. A man has just one act to perform; beyond that act, he faces the abyss. What meaning is there to his life? To avoid facing that abysmal existential meaninglessness, he creates interlocking ladders of male status and priviledge and pretends that the activities of men – the politics of position – is of vital importance. No wonder he fears being unmasked by women.

No wonder he wants to keep women imprisoned within walls, uneducated and ignorant, in no position to watch his posturing, and in no position to criticize. How threatening it must be to men to see women enter their world, to see them hold their heads up as if it’s perfectly fine not to have been placed appropriately on the masculine ladder. As if they have a right to claim a position themselves. As if, with a wave of their hand, they can send the entire masculine edifice flying.

And yes, women can do that.

It’s happening every day actually. When a man meets a woman and is capable of loving her, he finds he can lay down all this posturing and rest. A woman invites him to be real.

“The Walrus” at Sea

The December edition of Canada’s only magazine of ideas, The Walrus, is disappointing for its multiple examples of ‘masculine blindness’. This month editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay is glad his privilege allows him to eschew introspection for video game playing, journalist Russell Wangersky laments the “24/7 drip, drip, drip of a thousand different toxins flowing continually  into my newspaper’s well of ideas” from online anonymous commentators without once acknowledging that women get far more, far worse than men. It was his comment that he was once threatened with a rock through his window that got me. Does he not know that women with public voices get daily onslaughts of rape and death threats?

Then there were the memoirs, two of them. I love memoir. It’s my favourite form of literature and I’ve studied it in all forms and permutations. Memoir, as others have said before me, is open to the charge of self-involvement and narcissism. Who, after all, thinks their own life is interesting and important enough to write about? The best thing about memoir is the way it overcomes this. The single most important quality of memoir is the introspection of the author-as- narrator. It’s through that introspection, the self-questioning, that readers can glimpse into the heart and mind of another human being. The details of memoir can be foreign to many readers, but the quest for meaning that occupies the introspecting narrator is universal.

In this case, both memoirs were written by men, white men. Privileged male voices occupy too many of The Walrus’s pages. But there is a difference in degree when the subject is the self, rather than some aspect of life outside the self.

In The Roughneck Diaries, Don Gillmor recounts his experiences as a young man when he divided his time between studying literature at university and working as a roughneck on the oil patch. He tells several anecdotes about the hardship of life as a roughneck and eventually decides the dangers are too great. That’s it. End of story. So what? How can I relate to this? How can a young immigrant, a woman, a disabled person, relate? We can’t relate to the details. What we can relate to is the meaning the author/narrator makes of it. Gillmor doesn’t go there.

Where he does go, though, is into portraits of prairie oil patch workers and support staff. He describes the driller who was “mean as a snake” and enjoyed destroying farm crops for the sheer perversity of it. There is a doctor who was “cinematically drunk” and whose medical care should have been grounds for lawsuit. There are all the workers who get drunk before they start their shifts and drunker when they finish. There is not a decent, thoughtful human being anywhere in sight.

Gillmor makes no attempt to understand these men, who are stuck in their lives of backbreaking physical labour without access to ‘the finer things’ that the author cherishes and will return to. His lack of empathy is most evident in his description of the woman who fell asleep at the wheel, sending both of them to hospital. The narrator wasn’t badly hurt, but the female co-worker spent a week in hospital. Gillmor expresses no compassion whatsoever.

I can’t imagine that Albertans reading this article feel anything but resentment at being so callously denigrated. As for me, I consider longingly how much the author could have said about masculinity at that time in his life when he stood between two modes of masculinity, sampling each. And what he could have said about privilege, when he was surrounded by men without it. And what he could have said about the erosion of humanity in the lives of men without options.

Without any of that, this memoir emits the sour perfume of entitlement and superiority.

But I’ve left the worst memoir for last. I don’t actually believe that Richard Kelly Kemick’s Playing God is memoir. I think it’s fiction. The premise is too good. I can just imagine a creative writing teacher giving the prompt – think of the weirdest thing that a man could collect and make up a story about a man who collects it.

This is not sufficient reason, of course, to call the author a liar.What makes the case more compelling is that the author-as-narrator is a poseur. Throughout the story, the narrator postures. This is the antithesis of memoir, where the honesty that comes from self-questioning is essential.

I don’t like the narrator. He verges on the sociopathic. I wouldn’t want to meet him. And nowhere does he give a reader any reason to care about him.

What I especially don’t like about him is his total lack of empathy for anyone, his self-involvement and his striking misogyny. All three are evident in his admission that he’s been selling his wife’s clothing to pay for his hobby, collecting figures for his Christmas village. An honest narrator might confess to feelings of guilt, but Kemick is gleeful that he got “a whole $23 dollars” for one of her tops.

No introspection there.

His misogyny forces itself onto readers most bluntly when he says of his relationship with his wife, “it had been just one month since I’d stopped getting the milk for free”. Is this meant to be a joke? Are we supposed to laugh? It’s been a few decades since people have found misogynistic jokes about ‘the wife’ funny, hasn’t it?

Before this comment, Kemick has treated us to his view of his mother. He thinks she likes his Christmas village, in part because “the woman is insufferably supportive of everything I do”. Well, I guess we need to excuse her for caring about him. And “the woman”? Who refers to their mother as “the woman”? It turns out though that the narrator suspects his mother of taking over his village for herself, and believes she completely misunderstands him. He was forced to listen to her “confuse my post office and library, gloss over my recreation area, and completely fuck up my all-embracing vision”. Poor thing, his mother doesn’t understand him.

And lastly, when an elderly woman buys a piece that he can’t afford, he says “I say a small prayer for the elderly woman: I ask that the distillery turn her village into Sodom and Gomorrah and that her smiling citizens, hopped up on liquor and lust, eat one another.” Right, nice guy, eh?

The narrator then goes into a litany of all the horrible village gifts he’s received over the years, from people who wish to give him thoughtful gifts, of course, pieces for his obsession. They’re all wrong. This is not a man who ever says ‘it’s the thought that counts’. This is a man who says “village gifts are kind gestures offered by those who have no fucking clue.” Kemick is a child-man who offers nothing of himself to others and then complains that they don’t understand him.

At a couple of points I thought the memoir might transcend the narrator’s whining. He says of his flawed village “Mine is a city that understands the true weight of mortality – its fleeting and fragile nature – and has grown accustomed to closed-casket funerals. Mine is a city that embraces the true spirit of Christmas only because its citizens so desperately need a holiday from the lifelong process of dying.” That’s good! Unfortunately the narrator doesn’t actually display any compassion for real people.

His entrapment in isolation is most revealed in his final comments. He and his wife are thinking of having a child, and he’s afraid that he’ll be “heartbroken when Litia loves this new thing more than she loves me.” The only insight he has into himself is that he will observe his wife and child from the trap of his own fears. Okay. He has revealed his core vulnerability.

But he ends the story by backtracking away from that insight, that honesty. He plugs the whole village in and “Here I am, surrounded by my city and its inhabitants, feeling like a god. And I bless them, every one.”

Judgmentalism and blame don’t belong in memoir. What we love about memoir is that we can see someone overcome the wrongs done to them by others, or the harm done by circumstance. This involves taking personal responsibility, not for the harm that has been done, but for the healing that must follow.

That The Walrus has included one memoir without the qualities of introspection, honesty and personal responsibility could be a mistake. That is has included two in one edition points to editorial blindness.

The Walrus was started to bring something like Harper’s and The Atlantic  to Canada. In fact the original idea was a partnership with Harper’s. Look at what has happened to that magazine in the last 12 years. One has only to look at “Easy Chair” to see the single biggest difference between a world-class magazine of ideas and The Walrus. Rebecca Solnit.

“The Time has come to speak of many things,” says the walrus. Yes, but  men need to stop speaking all the time and listen. The masculine view, by itself, is just too limited.