“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”.

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.





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?



7 Laws for an Equal Society

Newcomers to feminism, particularly celebrities, are getting a lot of social media press lately. Yesterday Feminist Current published a post about yet another young, male celebrity celebrating his new-found feminism. Read it here. Asked his definition of feminism, he answered that it’s the belief that men and women are equal. This is a feel-good meme; you’d have to be some old codger not to share this belief. But what does it mean exactly?

To help answer that, I’ve drawn up a list of laws (and some social mores) that a society that truly believed a woman’s life, voice and needs were of equal importance to a man’s life, voice and needs would enact. This is a draft list; revisions and additions are totally welcome.

  1. A man who fathered a child would be required to attend court immediately after the birth to draw up a contract between himself and his child, specifying the amount of financial support he would provide for the coming 18 years. This contract would have nothing to do with the mother and would apply regardless of the circumstances of conception — whether within a marriage or the result of a one-time hookup. The monies would be deposited into a bank account set up for the child, and administered by the primary care-giver or agreed-upon substitute.
  2. A man convicted of sexual assault of a prepubescent child would receive a choice of death or life in prison. This punishment is commensurate with the devastating consequences of child sexual assault on both the child, and society as a whole. It also recognizes that pedophiles will never stop and therefore people are not safe as long as pedophiles are at liberty. It may also be the only deterrent capable of persuading pedophiles not to act out their urges.
  3. A man convicted of rape of an adolescent or adult for the third time would receive life imprisonment. This is again commensurate with the violation against the person (not just against the body) that constitutes rape, and recognizes  a need to keep people safe from a man who will not stop. Convictions for rape will rely on the victim’s sworn testimony and a detailed examination of the accused’s sexual history. Where rapists are concerned, past performance really does predict future results. Severe penalties levied against accusers found to have lied.
  4. Organizations wishing to lobby against or protest against abortion would be required to set up and fund a subsidiary charitable organization to sponsor single mothers. Sponsorship would consist of three years of full financial support plus the services of a counsellor. There would be a specified linkage between money spent to lobby against abortion, and money spent to sponsor  single mothers.
  5. A woman who believes her life is in danger from a stalker, spouse or ex-spouse would be allowed to claim self-defense if she kills him in a planned manner. Currently she can  claim self-defense only if her life is in imminent danger — in other words when she is actually under attack. This is preposterous. If a woman truly believes the only way to save her own life is to take that of a man who threatens to take hers, she must be able to attack him in a manner that minimizes the risk to herself. Note this law would not allow women to kill men with impunity — only that they can claim self defense even if they plan the killing in advance.
  6. I’m not sure what to do about sex, so this one is the most tentative of all. People unable to find sexual partners could ask their doctors for a referral to a licensed sex therapist?
  7. This one could not be legislated, so it’s a social more rather than a law. Parents would teach their daughters not to accept free meals, drinks or other outings from men. In western history, young men paid for their dates with young women for two reasons: first the woman would have no money of her own, and second he would be demonstrating his fitness to be her husband by being able to provide for her. Circumstances have changed. Male-paid dating now teaches men how to use financial inducements to pressure  women into sex, in effect teaching them how to be johns. It also teaches women to use men for their money, and puts them in the very uncomfortable position of feel obligated to give some return for the man’s investment. It is not easy to give something away for free; it is also not easy to accept something without feeling an obligation to give back.

So what do the new crop of feminists think about this list? Would you use whatever status and power you have to lobby governments to enact legislation something like this?