Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Spiritual Feminism

“Our inner being, which we call ourself, no eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced.”—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Solitude of Self.

Stanton’s famous 1892 address captures the essence of the feminist idea. With allowances for the language and culture of that time, the message is just as relevant now as ever. It is a refutation, in what I would call spiritual terms, of all arguments for male supremacy.

Every person experiences her life singly, as the one and only center of that life. The preciousness of one’s life lies precisely in the fact that it is the only life one has. Moreover, all human beings desire the free exercise of their wills, minds, and faculties. When a person is treated as if she were an object, a means towards an end not her own, this is perceived as unjust at some level of consciousness, because it is essentially a lie, a denial of her reality as self. Even if she is so thoroughly socialized that there is no conscious awareness of injustice, the denial of self will exact a psychological price. The suppression of truth at such a fundamental level cannot be maintained without destructive effects. In the long view, this sums up the history of the subjection of women by men.

Engels seemed to hint that the domestication of animals led to the herdsman’s application of the same idea of ownership and control to women, and later to other men. This is of course speculation—the origins of the problem are murky. The outcome, however, is clear. Women were eventually made the slaves of men. The patriarchal social order limited women to the roles of sexual mates, mothers, and domestic laborers. Slavery as it developed in the ancient world was not much different in principle from what already existed in the family structure.

The system was powerful and all-pervading, so embedded in the social order that most people couldn’t even see it. In addition to being firmly established through law and custom, women’s “role” was deeply internalized and transmitted from parents to children for thousands of years. The limitations of patriarchal culture made it almost impossible for anyone, male or female, to see beyond it, until the intellectual rebellion of the 17th century, and the subsequent gradual widening of education in society, awakened the long-dormant thirst for freedom. But even before any of this, from the most ancient times, lack of freedom was perceived at a subconscious level as painful and unjust, and there were sporadic instinctual rebellions, sometimes only suppressed by the cruelest measures.

The act of force, the establishment of patriarchy through domination, far preceded the various reasons and justifications offered for male supremacy. Nevertheless, the anti-feminist arguments lead us to the awareness of certain assumptions about men and women. The basic assumption, as Stanton so shrewdly divined, is that selfhood is a prerogative of the patriarch, and that women are meant to serve the patriarch as a means towards his ends. That’s what objectification ultimately means, in the sexual and every other sense: the subservience of the female self to a power outside of her—in effect, the denial of any absolute value to her self.

A secondary assumption, following from the basic one, is that men are superior to women. The idea of superiority arises, as in the debates on slavery, from the need to justify the already existing power structure. A lot of words have been spent arguing the merits of either side of this question. After modern feminist gains, the superiority idea has been supplanted for the most part by the notion of essential difference. In other words, neither is superior; it’s just that men are designed to do certain things and women to do other things, and these things shouldn’t be mixed. Of course it’s really just a new version of the old idea: the things men are designed to do turn out to involve the exercise of their wills, minds, and faculties; while women are romantic nurturers and mothers.

Concepts of superiority and inferiority are, in any case, completely determined by what one considers more or less valuable. The anti-feminist argument sometimes even falls back on physical strength as an absolute value, as if we were still hunter-gatherers. The point is that the feminist argument for equality is based on the inherent worthiness of each human life rather than on comparisons of perceived qualities peculiar to the different genders. In fact, even if one were to concede (purely for the sake of argument) that men possessed some sort of natural superiority, the claim doesn’t even touch the validity of the point Stanton is making. For my self, the one life that only I experience, there can be no imposition of an absolute role based on some sort of natural or social comparison. I still desire freedom as my condition, and in my heart I cannot fully accept myself as a mere object of someone else’s will or purpose.

So the superiority debate is a sham, a cover for the basic assumption, which is that the male authority is the only valid subject. We come back to earth and find nothing but a simple self-centeredness that exercises its power and control over other people in order to gain more power and control. This is what patriarchy amounts to in the end.

In our imagination we can turn the mirror around and see how a man would react to becoming an object. A man is encouraged to strive in a realm of action, or to explore a realm of ideas, or perhaps even both. At the least, he is expected to have some measure of ambition in the world, however modest. He is also expected, usually, to find a mate and raise a family. But try to imagine if he was told that his primary purpose was to find a mate and raise a family, and that all else was frivolous compared to that. Would a man accept this? Of course not. There is more to life, he knows, than romance and babies, and it would be an intolerable restriction on his free will for society to limit him so. And what if his appearance, his sexual attractiveness, was valued above everything else—mind, creativity, commitment or effort? Most men would be driven to despair by such an arrangement. And yet, because of the hypnotic effect of the ancient patriarchal structure, many men fail to see that this is exactly what women are faced with.

That women have made gains, particularly in the West, in recent centuries, is almost entirely due to the struggles of women who have awakened to reality. There have been male allies, many of them perhaps not fully realizing the implications of the movement, but the institutional structure has resisted feminism every step of the way, and continues to do so. The oldest form of oppression, it would seem, dies the hardest.

With all the gains, however, we can sometimes minimize or forget the fundamental importance of the struggle. In the conventional discourse, it is framed in terms of women’s rights and the need for equality, especially in economic and political terms. This is all very important because women need more power over their own lives, and everything that works towards that end is worthwhile. Still, feminism ultimately looks beyond the symbolism of the woman executive or soldier or politician, the woman integrated more equally into the system, and extends its thought to a radical critique of the patriarchal structure itself.

Behind the anti-feminist argument, grown softer and subtler and more ingratiating in the modern age, stands the unacknowledged shadow of slavery. It still survives undisguised in the poorer nations. It is important to remember that the argument always leads to the same place. Male supremacy, in the end, is founded on force. Rape is not an aberration, but a primary symptom of the central problem of human society. You’ll notice that rape always accompanies war; it’s an essential expression of it. Domination, the power principle, is the illusion that an inviolable, free, solitary self can be transformed into a mere object, sacrificed on the altar of authority. This is the tragedy of human history, and patriarchy is at its very core. Feminism is the awakening insight, the recognition of freedom as an absolute and inherent value in the self. Its significance embraces the political, social, and cultural realms—it is ultimately a spiritual liberation.

Monday, March 23, 2009

False Memory

Conversation between a Republican and a non-amnesiac:

R: The country’s going to hell. What a rotten mess!

NA: You’re only noticing this now, after eight years?

R: I’m talking about the huge amounts of money we’re just throwing down the toilet.

NA: Yeah, I agree about the Iraq War.

R: No, I mean the stimulus bill. It’ll make Iraq look like a garage sale.

NA: Really? How many people have been killed in the stimulus bill so far?

Most real colloquies aren’t so polite, of course. More typically, a wrong winger will start yelling, wildly gesticulating, frothing at the mouth, and bleating hot-button words like “socialism” and “communism.”

My position is this. If you aren’t outraged about what happened during the last eight years, if instead you make excuses for the Republicans and other crooks who lied and stole and killed and tortured, and disgraced the country—then I have nothing to say to you. There’s nothing that can be said. It’s no use wasting my time trying to persuade people that what actually happened, happened. If after all this time, you’re ignorant of what happened, willfully or otherwise, then you have no place in rational political discourse.

That doesn’t mean Democrats should be immune from criticism. By no means. But if you’re angry about Obama, and you weren’t angry about Bush, then you are out of touch with reality.

Politically, the Republicans still have influence because they still have some power. But it’s only by virtue of power in the most naked sense that they have any role to play. In terms of values, perception of truth, or desire for the good of the country, they have no role. They represent exactly that which has brought us to our present crisis. They are the spokesmen for what is destroying us. I’m sorry, but there is no reaching across the aisle when the person across the aisle is a delusional maniac. Whatever progress is made, will be made in spite of the liars and looters, not with them, and every single day since Obama was inaugurated has confirmed that truth.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


I was talking about a Higher Power with someone and she said, “I have a hard time believing that there really is something out there that cares about me.”

The language she used brought questions to my mind. Questions by themselves are often more valuable than answers because they challenge our assumptions and take us beyond what we think we already know.

Here are the questions. Where exactly is “out there”? How far “out there” would God, or the Divine, really be? Above the clouds? Farther than the moon? A few light years? A trillion light years? A few feet? Six inches?

And ultimately, if this Reality is “out there” somewhere, no matter how far it may be, can it ever really be in contact with me, with us, over “here”?

If I touch something, or if something or someone touches me, doesn’t that mean there is no distance between us? And with literally no distance between us, what becomes of “in here” and “out there,” “you” and “me”?

If you ask these questions long enough, you will begin to understand what those wily old Chinese masters meant by “putting a second head on top of your own.” The chasm opening up beneath your feet marks the difference between spirituality and religion.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


How civilized do you think the human race really is? It depends on what we mean by “civilized.” I happen to be a student of history and politics. And when I survey the events of the last century, I see two world wars and dozens of other bloody conflicts, the proliferation of weapons that can destroy all life several times over, environmental destruction on a scale that seriously threatens to make us extinct, and a catalogue of genocides, cruelties and oppressions that would have made our 19th century ancestors turn insane with horror if they could have foreseen it all. If nothing else, such awareness should foster a sense of humility. But let’s stop for a moment and listen to what technology guru Ray Kurzweil has to say, according to a recent article in Rolling Stone:

“In our lifetime, Kurzweil believes, machines will not only surpass humans in intelligence - they will irrevocably alter what it means to be human. Cell-size robots will zap disease from our bloodstream. Superintelligent nanotechnology, operating on a molecular scale, will scrub pollution from our atmosphere. Our minds, our skills, our memories, our very consciousness will be backed up on computers—allowing us, in essence, to live forever, all our data saved by supersmart machines.”

Okay, Kurzweil is a lunatic. But Freeman Dyson is a highly respected scientist, one of the leading modern writers on physics. Here he is in the New York Review of Books a couple of years ago:

“Within a few more decades, as the continued exploring of genomes gives us better knowledge of the architecture of living creatures, we shall be able to design new species of microbes and plants according to our needs…Green technology could replace most of our existing chemical industries and a large part of our mining and manufacturing industries. Genetically engineered earthworms could extract common metals such as aluminum and titanium from clay, and genetically engineered seaweed could extract magnesium or gold from seawater. Green technology could also achieve more extensive recycling of waste products and worn-out machines, with great benefit to the environment. An economic system based on green technology could come much closer to the goal of sustainability, using sunlight instead of fossil fuels as the primary source of energy. New species of termite could be engineered to chew up derelict automobiles instead of houses, and new species of tree could be engineered to convert carbon dioxide and sunlight into liquid fuels instead of cellulose.”

Kurzweil thinks that immortality is a good idea, even though population has exploded beyond a sustainable level. Dyson, the more reasonable one, thinks that manipulating genes will solve our problems. His error seems less obvious. In fact it’s the same error. They both believe that humanity can be trusted to wield technological power in a benevolent fashion, and even that technology is a kind of agency in itself. But the history of technological advancement proves them wrong every step of the way.

A fool can sometimes teach us more than an intelligent man, if he makes a fundamental error more clear. Kurzweil with his “singularity” (and believe me, there are enthusiasts out there who really buy into this stuff) does us a service precisely in this way. The error is simply egoism and its corollary, intellectual pride—the belief that self-interest and reason is all we need. Technocrats simply refuse to see that there is an element of human nature that is independent of their goal-oriented model of control.

It’s not that technology is bad. Of course it isn’t. The problem is that human culture has not matured sufficiently to handle the almost god-like powers of modern technology. Instead we’re using them to kill each other and ourselves. The problem that faces us is actually the same that faced the ancient philosophers who puzzled over the problems of political life. How do we foster a civilization based on love, respect, and mutual cooperation, rather than the habitual structures of power, domination, and greed? Reason plays a part in this, but so do emotions. Without taking human emotional needs into account, we have no vantage point from which to understand love and hatred, peace and war, kindness or cruelty.

The techno-fix will not work. I wish it would, because it would be so much easier. But for a species that doesn’t understand its limitations, that chooses arrogance over humility and ignorance over self-awareness, in short, for an uncivilized creature, a barbarian in a suit and tie, technology will only reflect the emptiness and vanity of his soul. The task is to free ourselves from our inner chains, and only then can we use our tools with wisdom, and for the good.