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?


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.



The Most Beautiful Names

People with a high degree of spiritual enlightenment (regardless of religious affiliation) say the soul has no gender. The numinous has no gender. The divine, if there is such a thing, has no gender. Personally, I think gender is just one of the illusions we live within during our stay here on earth.

The Sufis, a divergent group of Islamic mystics, say the world was created from the ninety-nine most beautiful names of God. Ninety nine is just a number that symbolizes many, and “names” means attributes or qualities. They speak, for example, of “God the merciful”, in which “merciful” is one of the names of God. If the entire universe is formed of divine attributes, everything is made up of unique combinations of some, but not all, of these attributes. In this way the divine is the gene within the gene, and our genetic heritage stretches beyond matter.

All the divine attributes can be divided into two almost limitless categories: those that give us a sense of closeness with the divine, and those that keep us at a distance from the divine. Those that give us a sense of closeness include names like God the beautiful, the tender, the gentle, the loving, the merciful. Those that keep us at a respectful distance include things like God the strong, the wrathful, the judge, the violent. For Sufis the divine invites people to intimacy with itself, while at the same time reminding people of the importance of boundaries.

Think, for a minute, of babies being born, each with an individual, unique selection of divine attributes. These, and the ways that they combine with each other, will form their personality.

It seems that in civilizations run by People of Power (POP), all the qualities associated with keeping distance from God have been assigned to males, and those associated with feeling close to God have been assigned to females. If you’re biologically male, your caregivers, acting in the name of society, are going to squash all the divine qualities associated with closeness out of you, and try to squeeze into you the distance qualities, whether you have them in potential or not. And the reverse if you’re female.

In effect, in this view, society kills some of the divine in each of us as soon as possible.

This makes it almost impossible for people to be authentic.

It’s been too hard for women for too long, of course, and so there have been “women’s liberation” movements again and again. Women have only to find their god-given strength to start lobbying, maneuvering, fighting for the right to be accorded equal status, as human beings, with men.

Men, on the other hand, gain too much from their inauthenticity. Those who do not have the divine names of “strength” or “ferocity” or “leader” have to pretend to those qualities. That makes them brittle, and, frankly, dangerous in the way that men who have to prove themselves always are. In exchange, they get to set the rules of all the games, they get heard when women are not, they get to speak when women don’t get that privilege, they get higher pay, or they just get the job. A man who’s good at faking it can have a good life.

Too many women still fake it too, because no movement can liberate the individual from an internalized prison. Movements can only make change in the body politic, not necessarily in the psyche.

Some days I am beyond believing that whole societies, whole civilizations can prefer such fakery of their members to authenticity.

Can you even imagine a world in which some men can invite closeness by their natural warmth, empathy and willingness to listen? And a world in which some women can effortlessly command attention and respect because their intelligence and problem-solving skills make them the obvious leaders?

The Sufis also say that we each worship a god of our own creation. Since God isn’t out walking and visible to all, we have to conceptualize a God to worship. And we conceptualize based on what we’re familiar with. Mostly religious people conceptualize some version of their own fathers. If their own father was distant, cold, withholding of approval, quick to punish, well then that’s the God they worship.

I like a short passage from the biblical book of Hosea, in which the Jewish prophet has a vision of the divine speaking to him. The divine presence seems to say “I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” Is the divine not describing itself by the attributes of motherhood?

An Idiot’s Guide to POP Cult 2

De-masculation 101

Jesus was the greatest emasculator of men the western world has ever known. Or he would have been, if he had been allowed to succeed. He was shut up and shut down pdq. He continues to be shut down by those men who pretend to follow him. No POP (Person of Power) has ever followed Jesus.

The message that Jesus repeatedly gave to the men of his culture was to cultivate and embrace those qualities his culture called “feminine”. “Turn the other cheek,” the bible reports him as saying. To do so, a man would have to cultivate pacifism, forgiveness, submission, acceptance, humility – all attributes that POP has assigned to women, all attributes that would undermine POP culture. “Love your neighbour as you love yourself”, he is further reported to have said. That’s the ultimate equality. It requires that men cultivate generosity, non-competitiveness, cooperation – all qualities that have been assigned to women, and all qualities that would undermine POP culture. “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”: when I first heard that I thought he was saying that women would ultimately emerge on top. The only meek people I knew were women.

When Christianity was made the state religion and became a political tool rather than a spiritual path, the church fathers were quick to do to Jesus what masculine training taught them to do: make him a hero, put him on a pedestal, let him be the sacrifice that lets other men off the hook. And so they made him the son of God, one with God (the ultimate POP). They made him a symbol of emasculation so that they wouldn’t have to emasculate themselves, and restored his masculinity in merging him with God the POP. Then they merrily continued the POP cultures of the Romans and the Jews.

It’s no wonder that “POP Christians” are big on Jehovah and give short shrift to Jesus, preferring an eye for an eye rather than turning the other cheek. Those men who really want to change and to be part of the change that the world needs if humanity is to survive need to emasculate themselves in the ways that Jesus suggested. They need to deconstruct their masculinity in a process similar to the “consciousness raising” that early feminists underwent in the 1960’s and 70’s, when groups of women would get together to learn from each other how they were perpetuating their own domination by POP, how they were participating in their own oppression, how they had swallowed the messages of POP and become the enforcers of their own inferiority.

“Emasculate” is, of course, the wrong word. “De-masculate” with its connotation of taking apart or undoing is better. Women do not need men to join the feminist movement; one suspects such men of wanting to be heroes, protectors of (weaker) women and children, which is what POP culture teaches them to be. Women in consciousness-raising groups learned to “de-feminize” themselves, and what greater symbol of that than the burning of the bra, an apparatus that simultaneously bound and highlighted the most obvious part of a woman’s anatomy. Men need to learn from each other the ways in which they have swallowed the messages of POP, the ways in which they perform oppression, aggression, and domination daily.
To know your enemy is half the battle. Men who want to end oppression must come to recognize their own oppressive behaviours.